Of course, these surveys (both carried out on a Wednesday afternoon) would need to be corroborated by proper traffic counts, including at morning and afternoon peaks and weekends. But they provide enough evidence to show there’s a risk of arriving at quick ‘solutions’ without first establishing the necessary information.
Last winter, I carried out a short traffic survey of Princes Street. I wanted to see if Princes Street is really clogged up with buses, as is claimed increasingly in some quarters. Only half the traffic on the street turned out to be local buses.I repeated the exercise in August, to see if there was a marked seasonal difference and the answer seems to be no.
Local service buses again formed less than half of all traffic in Princes Street, with other significant vehicles including tourist buses and especially taxis. Many of these vehicles don’t stop at all on Princes Street, using it simply as a short cut thoroughfare. If reducing traffic on Princes Street is a key aim (as it appears to be as part of the ‘City Centre Transformation initiative’), wouldn't it make sense to look at removing such traffic first?
Before any plan to significantly remove buses from Princes Street is developed, a much more nuanced discussion is needed on what the street is for (especially the balance between ’movement’ and ‘place’) and what are the implications of major changes on other city centre streets. There are also, as I argued previously, a number of other small-scale measures (from improved traffic enforcement to minor bus route changes) which should be explored before any major change to the bus network is contemplated.
Of course, these surveys (both carried out on a Wednesday afternoon) would need to be corroborated by proper traffic counts, including at morning and afternoon peaks and weekends. But they provide enough evidence to show there’s a risk of arriving at quick ‘solutions’ without first establishing the necessary information.
Another thought on street clutter...although widely recognised as a significant problem for pedestrians (both because it reduces the available space for walking and because it can represent a serious hazard for some people, most obviously those with visual impairments) what is less widely acknowledged is the apparent effect that street clutter has on attracting other clutter.
From my observations, there seems to be a clear pattern where temporary obstacles of one kind or another are often placed next to other obstacles. For example, an ‘A-board’ may be placed next to (or chained to) a signage pole. Old roadworks debris (cones, signs, sandbags etc) are left beside or behind a utility box or cycle stand. Wheelie bins may be placed next to a phone box and so on. Fly tipping of old mattresses or pallets etc is most likely to be next to some pre-existing clutter. Cycle stands on the pavement will invite the addition of A-boards or bins. The more untidy the space is, the more likely something will be added to it. So clutter attracts clutter - I’ve come to think of this as “the Iron Law of Street Clutter”.
This is important because not only does one form of clutter seem to encourage the accumulation of more clutter, but it is often the combination of different forms of clutter - say ‘A-boards’ and signage poles - which most restrict pavement space and which most cause danger. No clutter is much better than some clutter.
The Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) has announced its programme of annual awards for 2018. Unfortunately there is no category this year for ‘reducing street clutter’ as in 2017. This award was a very welcome initiative in view of the publication of the new Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD, or ‘Traffic Signs Regs’) in 2016.
To those unfamiliar with this less-than exciting sounding document, this is the statutory guidance which governs when and where road signs are required. The guidance states ” the number of traffic signs has doubled in the past 20 years. This is unsustainable, and bears out the need to reduce signing wherever possible. A culture change is needed in the way signing is used” (2.9).
Many streets throughout the UK are littered with dozens of poles bearing signs indicating parking and loading restrictions, or warning of hazards. Leaving aside aesthetic considerations, they narrow the walking space for pedestrians especially if combined with other street clutter and can be a hazard for those with disabilities and visual impairments. It is also common to see signage poles with no sign on them, a pet hate of mine.
Many of these signs are no longer required at all under the new TSRGD policy - local authorities now have much more discretion and flexibility on how best to advertise Traffic Regulation Orders and such like which were previously strictly prescribed. The 2016 guidance also relaxes the former requirement for many signs to be lit, recognising that there are many more options for high-visibility signs now on the market. This has huge potential for councils to save money through reduced electricity consumption and cheaper maintenance.
Despite its timeliness, my understanding is that the CIHT’s decluttering award last year did not attract many entrants. Particularly disappointing is that no entry was received from Scotland, I understand. Not one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities had either the desire, or the material, to submit an entry for what would surely be a ‘quick win’ in making streets less cluttered and easier for people to use. There are not many opportunities to both improve streets and saving money at the same time.
Inadequate, narrow pavements are rife across the UK and realistically, funding to widen them significantly is not there in the short to medium term. Keeping them clear of clutter should therefore be a top priority for councils wanting a cost-effective way to encourage people to walk, with all the benefits that brings to the local community and economy. Lets hope that a decluttering culture will come into fashion soon, and the CIHT will resume its award ‘by popular demand’.
During his recent work in Edinburgh (1) the influential Danish urban designer Jan Gehl reportedly described Princes Street as a “big bus station”. Certainly, the pedestrian environment is dominated by traffic, which can also obscure the famous views to the Old Town and Castle. There now seem to be growing whispers of a radical change to Edinburgh’s transport system; to shift buses off Princes Street.
The Council is currently consulting on hugely unpopular proposals for a triangular gyratory system on Picardy Place (2) on the north-east edge of the UNESCO World Heritage site. Officials have recently claimed that one benefit of the scheme is that it would enable buses from the north side of Edinburgh to terminate there and turn around. Passengers for Princes Street and beyond would then be expected to change onto an expanded tram network, so removing hundreds of buses a day from Princes Street. This is not something that should be considered lightly.
Edinburgh’s bus network is widely recognised as the best in Scotland, with 27.4% of adults reportedly using the bus nearly every day, and bus use at nearly twice the Scottish average (3). Buses are relatively cheap, modern and frequent and contribute significantly to Edinburgh’s enviably low share of commuting by private car. There is a reason that so many buses travel along Princes Street - that it is where people want to go. Bus passengers also value direct services. There is considerable resistance to interchanging on public transport (4), and of course having to get off the bus and onto another vehicle is harder for some people than others: notably disabled people, older people, parents with small children, those with luggage etc. These equality issues are a fundamental consideration. A major change in the bus system without careful thought could risk this success story.
So what can be done about congested Princes Street? I carried out a snapshot survey of traffic on Princes Street recently and found that local buses accounted for only half of the traffic on the street (table and chart below). Taxis and express buses also contributed significantly to traffic levels and this holds true even excluding bicycles (which occupy negligible space). This snapshot (for one hour on a November Wednesday afternoon) may not be typical, but it indicates that local buses aren’t the whole cause of Princes Street congestion.
If the tram is extended to Leith, as seems the intention, there would presumably be a significant reduction in bus services which duplicate much of the route. It should also be possible to re-route some bus services two that more cross Princes Street, rather than run along it. There are also a number of other options to reduce congestion that don’t require any changes to local bus services at all. All these options can - and should - be explored fully before any thought is given to the nuclear option of forcing passengers to change public transport:
Of course, there will be pros and cons with all of these options, but these kind of measures - and no doubt others - could realistically halve the number of vehicles on Princes Street. They should be thoroughly explored before an assumption takes hold that making passengers change buses is a good idea. Hopefully, the ‘City Centre Transformation’ initiative announced by the Council in October 2017 to look at how best to manage the city centre will provide a means to do that.
People on lower incomes are much more likely to walk to work thank those on higher incomes, who are much more likely to drive. While this may be an intuitive and obvious statement, the difference in the travel-to-work patterns of poorer and wealthier people in Scotland is starkly evident from statistics published by Transport Scotland earlier this year. * The chart below shows the correlation between income and driving; and also the inverse correlation between income and walking. This demonstrates, not for the first time, the importance of investing in walking not only on environmental and health grounds, but also to promote social equality.
* scot-tran-stats-35-chapter11-personal, Table 11.18 bit.ly/2jn0V10
Lothian Taxicard, offering discounted taxi fares to disabled people, was started 25 years ago. As the council officer who was principally responsible for developing the scheme, I thought it a timely point to reflect on its history - and the possible future of such schemes.
The introduction of a Taxicard scheme was not my idea; my then boss Keith Gowenlock proposed the service as part of ‘the multi-modal approach’ to accessible transport that Lothian Regional Council (LRC) was developing. This was supported by the head of the Public Transport Unit David Chambers, and at a political level, by Councillors Ron Muir and then David Begg who chaired the Transport Committee. The Lothian scheme was loosely modelled on the London Taxicard scheme which the GLC had funded for some time along with dial-a-ride services. Interestingly, a taxi subsidy scheme had also run in Edinburgh for a number of years, administered by the rather unfortunately-named Edinburgh Cripple Aid Society (which has since re-branded solely as ‘ECAS’). The ECAS scheme issued “chits’ giving discounted fares to a group of disabled people for use with a contracted local taxi firm, Radiocabs.
However, the ECAS scheme was not sustainable; for a start, it applied only to a small group of people in Edinburgh, and the Regional Council, which had taken over funding of the scheme, needed to ensure that services were available more fairly, including in the other districts in the Region (West, East and Midlothian). ECAS was keen for the Council to take over administration of the scheme. For its part, LRC saw a Taxicard scheme offering several distinctive benefits which other services could not. In particular, although LRC funded the local dial-a-ride service Handicabs, and since 1990 a semi-scheduled Dial-a-Bus shopping service, these door to door schemes did not suit everyone. Getting through on the phone to secure a booking was a problem and not everyone wanted to (or could) plan their trips in advance. In addition, as a service specifically for disabled people, dial-a-rides were seen by some as having a degree of stigma as a ‘special’ or segregated service, and they provided limited choice to the passenger. Of course, mainstream public transport was a complete no-go area for most disabled people at this time as buses typically had three steps up to a high floor. Taxicard therefore complemented other door to door services and efforts to improve the accessibility of mainstream public transport.
Edinburgh District Council had also been the first council outside London to stipulate that all taxis must become wheelchair accessible. Along with this requirement, Edinburgh led the way in training taxi drivers on how to assist passengers using wheelchairs, with mandatory sessions for drivers overseen by the Cab Office, then managed by the police. Unquestionably, not all taxi drivers welcomed these new obligations, but a Taxicard scheme could complement these regulatory measures by encouraging disabled people to use taxis, stimulating customer demand.
So the Lothian Taxicard scheme was launched in 1992, offering a maximum of 104 single trips a year (this maximum limit echoed the demands of the ‘One Trip a Week’ campaign for dial-a-ride funding which I had led in London a few years earlier). The chief criterion for eligibility for a Taxicard was that the applicant was unable to use buses. Local taxi and private hire companies were invited to participate in the scheme, so that there was usually both a choice of service provider, and of vehicles type. The user had to make a minimum payment of £1.00 and would pay no more until the fare exceeded £5.00; anything above that was payable by the passenger. In 1992, this subsidy of up to £4 per trip paid for a reasonable distance. Triplicate receipt pads were issued to participating companies, with passenger, council and taxi firm each getting a copy. The scheme was launched in West Lothian and then rolled out to the other councils with (from memory) an annual budget of £0.5 million. It is hard not to feel a little nostalgic for a time when a local authority had both the money and the political will to initiate new services like this!
Unsurprisingly, the scheme was immediately popular, with rapidly-developing demand for Taxicards and immensely positive feedback. The number of trips by Taxicard quickly outstripped those by dial-a-ride and Dial-a-Bus, and with a financial ceiling per trip, it represented a cost-effective way of significantly increasing travel options for many disabled people to the council. A Taxicard Users’ Association developed, which became influential as a disability-led group campaigning for accessible transport. The scheme was part of the reason that Lothian Regional Council won the first Equality Award by the European Commission in Scotland in 1995, and several other regional councils introduced similar schemes. However, controlling budgets was always a problem and it was administratively cumbersome, with thousands of trip slips processed monthly to control the 104 limit and to check taxi invoices. Eligibility was largely controlled through requiring that Taxicard applicants did not also hold concessionary travel (bus) permits but eligibility was always prone to ‘grey areas’ given that people do not neatly fall into two boxes - those who can, and those who can’t ‘use conventional buses’. As buses have become more accessible and concepts of disability (including mental health) have changed, eligibility has no doubt become more contested.
The scheme survived local government re-organisation in 1996, with each of the four successor unitary councils in the Lothians maintaining their own Taxicard schemes. However, over the years, the benefits provided have been eroded as senior officials gave the scheme less priority and reduced budgets. The minimum flat rate contribution by the passenger was raised to £2.00 and over time, the remaining £3.00 subsidy went less and less far - literally - due to taxi fare inflation. Perhaps I’m reading more into this than I should, but I’m struck how the scheme logo in Edinburgh today is completely unchanged from 1992! While the scheme continues in the local authorities today, Midlothian closed the scheme to new entrants in 2015.
Looking to the future, while Taxicard continues to play a valuable role, the role of such schemes seem uncertain in the longer term. Council budget pressures and the improved accessibility of buses are the most obvious immediate challenges. But technology is also providing new opportunities not just for improved administrative efficiency, but also for service innovation. Most obviously, the emergence of Uber and perhaps other ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) developments may make the old Taxicard model obsolete. If Uber (or similar services) become more widespread and can undercut taxi fares by say 20%, does it make sense for the public purse to subsidise taxi fares by say 10% through a Taxicard scheme? Of course, fare levels are not the only factor - the conduct of the driver and the accessibility of the vehicle are other important aspects of a service, for example. However, it looks likely in the longer term that new opportunities to provide door to door transport on demand and more cheaply will develop, perhaps one day even using autonomous vehicles? This must be a good thing. For now, I see real opportunities for some creative thinking at a national level (especially in Scotland) on how to encourage low-cost door-to-door services provided by the private sector, perhaps leveraging concessionary travel budgets (see also my blog here).
However, there is no doubt in my mind that the Lothian Taxicard scheme made a huge impact in opening up the possibility of spontaneous travel for many disabled people. It also contributed to making taxi services more disability-friendly and helped raise the bar - in terms of both expectations, and delivery - of inclusive travel in Scotland. These are important legacies
Most mornings, I go to my corner shop to buy a newspaper, a distance of maybe 30 metres. Should I ever be asked to contribute to official Scottish transport statistics through participating in the Scottish Household Survey, these trips would be completely invisible. The Survey asks only about trips on foot (or by bike) of a quarter of a mile or more (1).
Walking also plays an essential part in many motorised trips - most obviously by bus, where walking to and from the bus stop is clearly a normal part of the journey chain, but also those car journeys which don’t involve door to door parking. These walking trips are similarly invisible in official statistics. As a result, Transport Scotland states that walking’s ‘modal share’ is only 22% of all journeys (compared to 64% by car) (2). Can driving really be three times more common than walking?
This matters principally because the exclusion of short trips skews the real pattern of people’s travel, under-representing walking and over-representing the importance of the car. This reinforces assumptions about the importance of motor transport and spending on roads as the obvious priority for investment in transport infrastructure. The infrastructure that enables short walks to take place - two pavements and a traffic light-controlled crossing in the case of my morning trip to the corner shop - is every bit as important as that which supports longer journeys.
The exclusion of short, local walking trips is also likely to reduce the visibility of journeys by older, poorer and disabled people. We know that there is a strong correlation between wealth, car use and walking: in Scotland 55% of people in households with an income of less than £10,000pa have no driving license, compared with 11.2% of those in households with an income of more than £40,000 (3). Many people who have no car - probably low income and elderly people in particular - will make frequent trips on foot within their neighbourhood that are rarely accounted for in official statistics.
Elsewhere, the National Travel Survey conducted for the Department of Transport excludes walks of under 50m, rather than a quarter of a mile. Curiously, the reported ‘modal share’ of walking is exactly the same as Scotland (22%) (4). Transport for London which has begun to use the International Walking Data Standard (5), publishess the distribution profile of walk-only trips, which shows the importance of including the shortest ones:
This illustrates the important effect of removing walking trips of less than 0.4km (quarter of a mile). However, even more significant is the walking part of a transport ‘chain’ such as to or from a bus stop, train station or car park. In London, it is estimated that these ‘walking share’ trips are *three times* as numerous as ‘walk-only’ trips (6).
Journeys on foot are far more numerous, and important, than official statistics (in Scotland at least) show. I see modal transport share a bit like an ecological pyramid - if aviation is the polar bear or shark at the apex perhaps walking is the krill at the base? The shortest walks, the indispensable bread and butter of so many individual journeys, are like the invisible plankton that feed the krill and supports the whole transport ecosystem.
(3) Scottish Transport Stats 35 Chapter 11 table 11.10
In January, the Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf announced that there would be a consultation on the future of Scotland’s concessionary travel scheme (1). The current scheme, which was set up in 2006, has faced criticism on the grounds of escalating cost - £207.8 million in 2016-17 (2) - and also from bus operators, who have seen reimbursement levels fall in recent years to a new low of 56.9% of the standard fare (3).
Update September 2017 - consultation on scheme open until 17 November 2017 bit.ly/2guM5Ag
However the review is also timely in providing an opportunity - overdue at that - to review the value for money of the social benefits that the scheme provides. Leaving to one side wider issues of taxation and spending, the very considerable concessionary travel budget is currently poorly targeted at people who need it.
Concessionary travel only make sense if it enables people to travel who could otherwise not afford to. So logic demands that it should be targeted at people on low incomes. But most concessionary travel spending is not aimed at people on low incomes, but rather at an arbitrary age bracket: those over 60 years old. And yet, the ‘young old’ (people in their 60s) are one of the better off age groups in the whole of society (4).
The increasing affluence of older people is not a new phenomenon; over the past thirty years, the old link between poverty and old age - once a justifiable basis for age-related travel concessions and other social security benefits - has not just reduced, but has disappeared entirely. Older people (i.e. those who qualify for free concessionary travel on age grounds) are now one of the least-poor age groups in the UK as the chart below from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows (5).
Audit Scotland has observed “research shows that [the National Concessionary Scheme] has had only limited impact on improving social inclusion, improving health or promoting a shift from car to bus” (6) - the key objectives of the scheme. In view of these limited benefits, the case for spending more than a billion pounds every five years on concessionary travel for over-60s is becoming weaker every year.
Of course, concessionary travel is not aimed only at older people; the scheme has long been been open to blind and disabled people, and this aspect of the scheme seems well justified. However, it is important to acknowledge too that there is a major gap in the scheme. Thousands of disabled people who can’t use the bus - for example because it isn’t accessible or the bus stop is too far away - derive no benefit at all from the scheme as it stands.
So what are the options? Unless there is some change, it is likely that the scheme will become unsustainable, because of rising costs and/or insufficient payment to operators. What would happen if the scheme was abolished entirely? Far from seeing an end to cheaper travel, it is likely that the government scheme would be replaced by a new range of (less generous but privately-funded) discounted fare schemes marketed by bus companies at off-peak times, when the marginal cost of carrying a passenger is virtually zero. The fiscal savings would enable the Scottish Government to significantly compensate low income elderly people who would most lose out through the tax and benefits system, perhaps targeting especially the poorest age groups, like those over 80.
However, there would be other consequences - despite the stated intention of concessionary travel arrangements to leave operators “no better nor worse off”, there would almost certainly be an adverse effect on bus services which are already experiencing a long term crisis in use (7). There is no question too that many people do benefit from concessionary travel and these benefits should not be dismissed lightly. It is politically inconceivable that the scheme would be scrapped entirely.
Depending on how much of the £200 million per year the Scottish Government is willing to potentially reallocate (and again leaving aside wider tax and spending questions) there are many options which could be considered. Increasing the age of entitlement to travel concessions, as has happened with state pensions, would save a lot of money, but it would also be a blunt instrument, affecting poorer and wealthier people equally. Another option to reduce the budget would be to limit the time that free travel is available under the scheme; applying concessions after the morning peak would especially save money as many buses are at capacity at this time.
Options for redistributing budget could include providing more direct support to bus services generally; however, as the current scheme is intended as a subsidy for passengers, rather than operators, the fairness of this switch is questionable. Offering free travel to young people (generally, a poorer age cohort than 60-somethings) could assist with job and college travel and encourage a sustained culture of public transport use; but of course that too would be a blunt (and expensive) instrument, like any other age-related eligibility criterion.
My favoured option would be to return to free travel concessions being principally aimed at encouraging local travel. In urban Scotland, this would mean free travel within local cities and surrounding areas while in rural areas, ‘local’ travel still often involves long distances. However, should the scheme pay for expensive long-distance leisure trips that many relatively affluent and mobile pensioners can currently enjoy for free? A study of the distribution of journey lengths funded by concessionary schemes showed that 19% of trips were over 25 miles long (8). The fares for longer bus trips are of course more expensive than for short bus trips; so it would be reasonable to assume that these longer trips make up at least 20% of the concessionary travel budget (perhaps considerably more). My guess is that, even allowing for the need to keep concessions for longer distance ‘local’ travel in rural areas, excluding of long-distance leisure trips from the free scheme might save 10% or more of the current budget; this would in itself provide some £20 million each year which could be used more effectively.
For me, the unique opportunity is to address the long-standing anomaly of disabled people who have the most significant mobility restrictions being excluded from the benefits of concessionary travel entirely. Community transport ‘Section 19’ operations could become eligible for concessionary travel and more ambitiously, a national taxi subsidy scheme for people who can’t use buses and need door-to-door transport could be established. Both of these could be easily achieved at a relatively modest cost.
This is the time not just for tweaks to the current scheme but for fresh and imaginative thinking on how public money can best be used make travel truly inclusive. To do this, we must move away from outdated spending models based on arbitrary age groups and focus more on need.
“As a blind person, I am in favor of driverless cars…I really really really really want driverless cars right now! Free at last! Free at last free at last!”
Comment on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEebyt6G5kM
Many disability advocates have begun to see the prospect of the driverless car or autonomous vehicle (AV) as a truly revolutionary mobility solution. Although it is entirely possible that predictions of an imminent driverless car revolution have been overhyped (1), let us assume that the model of ‘Mobility as a Service’ takes hold. In the future, it becomes the norm for people to summon a driverless (electric) car that meets their requirements at a moments notice through an app, ‘Uber-style’. Payment will be based on use and because of the economics of intensively-used vehicles, to own and use a private vehicle will become unattractive for most people.
It is easy to envisage the advantages that on-demand driverless vehicles would offer to many people with a disability especially for those who cannot currently drive, such as people with visual impairments, conditions such as epilepsy and certain physical conditions (2). We can assume (perhaps rashly) that driverless vehicles are designed in order to be physically accessible to a wide range of people with various disabilities and mobility requirements (including wheelchair users). Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will appeal to people who need or prefer door-to door transport, while for drivers, problems with ‘parking’ should be greatly simplified, if not eliminated. There is also evidence (3) that some disabled people are discouraged from using public transport by the potential attitudes of other passengers or drivers, a problem which driverless cars would eliminate.
On the other hand, AVs may present a number of barriers for many disabled people. Those who lack confidence in travelling, or who experience high degrees of anxiety, may continue to want the reassurance of a human presence in order to travel. This may apply particularly to older people, especially the very elderly, people with dementia and people who require personal assistance even with mundane tasks like getting their coat on. Another factor of course will be cost; we don’t yet know what the costs of AV use would be, but even if they are much cheaper than private cars, many disabled people may be unable to afford them. Availability (and cost) in rural areas may be especially problematic.
How people access and use the AV’s themselves is not of course the only issue; the impact of AVs on streets and other road users - especially pedestrians - is another important element of the whole package. We know that safe pedestrian environments are important for many older people to travel with confidence (4). The speed and proximity of AVs to pedestrian spaces, the functioning of pedestrian crossings in an AV environment and the redesign of streets where parking is no longer required are other aspects that need to be thought carefully through.
Like any service under development, there is a risk that unless disabled people are involved early on, questionable assumptions about what they can or want to do are made; for example, in this an article on the driverless cars in the Huffington Post: “For obvious reasons, those with physical disabilities often cannot learn to drive cars, but it also extends to those with mental incapacities; for example, those with epilepsy” (5).
The key must surely be early involvement of disabled people not only in technical design of autonomous vehicles themselves but also in the planning of the whole service model, so that an ‘inclusive design’ approach is taken at the outset. While it is encouraging that projects like GATEway have begun to explore this area (6), there was no discussion of the impact of AVs on disabled people in the UK Department of Transport’s Pathway to driverless cars published last month (7). There is, as the Ruderman Foundation concluded last year, “an urgent need to develop a common agenda at the intersection between autonomous vehicles and disability policy” (8). This requires much clearer and more transparent engagement at all levels between disabled people, technical and regulatory agencies in both the public and private sectors.
1) Driverless cars: the road ahead is difficult, NESTA, July 2016
2) Driverless driving for disabled people within the decade? Robin Christopherson, June 2016
3) Understanding why some people do not use buses, Scottish Government Social Research 2010
4) Importance of safe pedestrian environments to ensure older people travel with confidence. Musselwhite, C, October 2016
5) Huffington Post, January 2017
6) GATEway demonstrates how teleoperation and autonomy can improve mobility for disabled drivers, GATEway, January 2017
7) Pathway to driverless cars, DfT January 2017
8) Ruderman Family Foundation, January 2017
There is currently much discussion about autonomous vehicles and the impact that they will have on our streets. Some anticipate that they will make private cars, buses and taxis virtually obsolete by 2030. Others are more sceptical. But we do not need to look 15 years into the future to anticipate significant changes in how roads are used; they are already evident.
For example, van traffic in the UK has increased by 70% in the past 20 years and is currently growing at 4 % a year. This is likely to be due in part at least, to the ever increasing rise in internet shopping and home delivery. What are the implications for our streets?
Without wishing to jump to “white van man” stereotypes, it is hard to avoid concluding that there are a number of negative impacts on streets and their users. A 2015 study by TRL found van drivers to be twice as likely as other drivers to use phones while driving. Anecdotally, vans seem particularly prone to illegal parking/loading, pavement parking and poor driving standards generally, encouraged no doubt by the employment and productivity pressures which apply to many van drivers. This can only have a negative impact on pedestrians, cyclists and indeed other drivers.
The rise of Uber is another recent change in traffic patterns, which is certainly disrupting traditional taxi businesses in urban areas and has led to calls for more regulation. But it is not only motor vehicle patterns which are changing; on a recent 20 minute walk I made through Edinburgh in the early evening, I passed 6 cyclists - five of which were Deliveroo couriers, whose road behaviour has also been subject to criticism. Deliveroo started operations only in 2013.
Companies generating new traffic like Amazon, Asos, Uber, Deliveroo, etc have business models built on the free use of a public asset: the road. Of course, we love home delivery of shopping and take-away food, and low ‘taxi’ fares. But it raises the question of whether commercial road users should pay more for using assets that they currently use for free - especially if their behaviour puts a cost (in terms of safety, convenience and accessibility) on other road users. The current taxation regime (for fuel, VED etc) is a very blunt instrument for making road users pay a fair price for using roads. In the longer term, ‘smart’ road pricing may become more acceptable as a means to apportion charges on road users more fairly, on top of the growing need to curtail urban traffic because of congestion and air quality. Indeed just this month the London Assembly has called for urgent reform to the capital's Congestion Charge. As so often, the technology is there, but the legal and regulatory environment lags behind.
“I hate the way everyone responsible for urban life seems to have lost sight of what cities are for. They are for people” Bill Bryson, Neither here Nor there, 1991 p61