Saturday, 21 September 2019

The Ethical Question

Yesterday saw the global climate strike and as I was on the train to work, it led me to pose a question on Twitter about how my industry should respond.

The tweet spawned some really good debate during the day and I am grateful for the various options and comments given. There was of course a wider discussion across Twitter and it had me thinking for most of the day to the point where I thought it might be helpful to put some longer thoughts down. Of course, the best tweets have a mistake in them because I of course meant conscientious objectors!

I think that a largest issue we face is that we are dealing with irrational humans who in the main cannot grasp the enormity of the situation. In fact, there are stark parallels with the only piece of management training that has stuck with me - the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (something I have covered before) and while it has its critics, it serves a useful reference point of me - as an engineer, I like to have things nicely compartmentalised!
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
Literally, we have climate change deniers which covers people who simply do not believe there is a problem and people who know full well what is going on, but their interests depend on denying it.

I think I have to put a chunk of my industry at the first stage given the type of schemes we are working on, but is it as simple as that? Let's take the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Should everyone in the industry simply say "no, we're not going to work on it as we'd be complicit in adding fuel to the fire"? 

The problem with the purist approach is that there is absolutely no way anyone is going to get everyone involved to simply walk away from a project like this and to think that would happen is naive. I'm afraid that's a hard truth for many to understand because at the same time as we are campaigning for the future of our children, there are people working in the industry (and indeed at the airport) who rely on their jobs to feed their children. 

This brings us to the next stage - anger. So we are past denying climate change, but we are angry. Those of us in the West are being told we need to radically change our lives and this means being less comfortable than we are now - it especially sticks in the craw when we are being told this by the Boomer generation who have had it all (wait until you hear about the people on our planet with nothing). People working on the Heathrow scheme are now being vilified for their involvement and they are now angry after investing their careers in the airport.

But hang on, we can maintain our standard of living because we are clever. What we can now do is develop a whole new technology of electrically powered aircraft. We can use public transport to support the expansion and so in doing so, we protect jobs and people can carry on as they are. Of course, many people cleverer than I will tell us that we simply don't have the resources on the planet to decarbonise Western transport with a business as usual approach. It doesn't matter because other people cleverer than I think we can mine the materials we need from space. Yes, we are now in the bargaining stage.

Eventually, we realise that we do in fact need to change, but it's a massive challenge and as individuals or companies, we cannot possibly deal with climate change. We may as well crack on and expand the airport because after all, the UK's contribution to climate change is nowhere as much as other countries. It is extends to the personal as well, we can cycle, eat less meat and put solar panels on our roof, but it needs government-level change.

Finally, we accept the reality of climate change and we realise that effort is needed individually, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We also accept that people and systems are not binary, we accept that people are fallible and we realise that every step taken is important. Perhaps over time, people is West London decide that a career at Heathrow isn't for them. People choose or are taxed to the extent where there isn't so much demand and expansion plans are scaled back or shelved. Designers start to see that there is more work in rail electrification and so start bidding on those projects.

Beyond the five stages of grief, we can talk about my industry as a profession and by that I mean that the professional institutions, trade bodies and societies with their membership need to start discussing climate change with a great deal more urgency. This discussion also needs to permeate through to where we all work too. As someone said to me yesterday, we can come up with a low-carbon motorway, but it's still a motorway!

In parallel to the people working on the Heathrow expansion, I have many years invested in my industry and at least in the medium term, I can't see myself doing anything else. It's probably ironic that I'm a highways engineer who doesn't support road building, but we are where we are and I know it is possible for me, my colleagues and my industry to use our skills and knowledge to do better. A properly designed and constructed cycleway uses the same kind of knowledge and design process as building a road after all!

So back to my original question;

"Do we refuse to work on roads schemes as conscientious objectors, or do we try an influence how they're done?"

I'm in agreement with my peers who responded to the tweet saying both. If the government is absolutely determined to expand Heathrow, then perhaps working on the project to make sure airport workers can easily cycle to work is better than throwing our hands up in the air as the runway surface is laid. 

We are expanding our trunk road network and so is it possible that we can argue for grade separated crossings as part of a dualling scheme at the same time as arguing against the scheme (close to home that one) - perhaps we can make that argument while taking a general position against expanding the road network. Can we work on a new retail park, but at the same time encourage our client to make walking and cycling into it/ around it easier than driving?

I know there may well be a whiff of cognitive dissonance here, but what is the alternative? If everyone in my industry who are even vaguely aware of the scale of climate change stopped working on anything vaguely damaging, then I'm afraid there are plenty of people who don't know about the impacts of climate change or are not bothered and so I actually think it is very important that we are in the thick of it trying to push change. 

As members of institutions, trade bodies and societies, we should keep raising the issue of climate change - even the odd letter to a trade magazine means the message reaches other people or a question at a learned society meeting might challenge the status quo. Getting people elected to boards and councils will help shift an organisations position. There are lots of things we can do to make a difference.

I think this Mister Gotcha cartoon by Matt Bors probably sums things up for me quite well;

Of course, you may disagree with me. In fact I want you to disagree because we need to be challenged at every stage. But I will put this to you as well - I think we need people out on the streets shouting for change for sure, but we also need people sitting in client meetings and institution meetings putting the case for change. It's not either or.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Suburban Serenity

Long before I got interested in how our urban places are put together I read about the city of Freiburg in southwest Germany and more specifically, the neighbourhood of Vauban which was built as a low-car eco-development.

A few weeks ago I finally managed to visit as we'd picked Freiburg im Breisgau (to give the city its full name) as a camping stop on the homeward leg of our summer holiday. I'll write about the city another time, but for this week, let's have a look around Vauban. The neighbourhood is to the south of the city, about 3km southwest of the city centre.

To get there, my son and I hired a couple of bikes from Donkey Republic, a system I used last year in Copenhagen and Malmö which conveniently had a virtual docking station at our campsite on the edge of the Waldsee neighbourhood to the east, arriving at about 11am on a Friday morning.

We cycled about 5.5km along a range of roads and streets which I'll cover in another post. We entered Vauban via the main street, Vaubanallee which runs roughly east-west through the centre of the neighbourhood. 

Vaubanallee does several things. Along the centre, there are a pair of tram tracks providing a connection to the city - they are actually one line because the route loops at the western end of the neighbourhood forming an interchange with a little bus station. The speed limit is 30kph throughout.

To the north of the tram line there a wide pedestrian boulevard within which cycling is permitted;

To the south of the railway line there is a carriageway providing access for motor vehicles;

The key thing about the road layout is that it is completely filtered. You can drive into the neighbourhood and you can access the streets, but you cannot drive through. Modal filtering before it was famous!

The street layout has been designed in such a way that walking and cycling is welcomed everywhere. It is all shared-use, but because it is a fully accessible grid, there is not going to be any conflict to worry about;

Motor traffic can access some streets off Vaubanallee, but drivers are guests because of the home zone approach taken with little loops for motors which removes the need for turning heads;

There were cars around and some parked up in the side streets such as this guy who was cleaning out his car;

Even late morning, there were plenty of people about, mainly using cycles to travel and what was striking was just how quiet the place was;

It's a mixed density development with flats and houses, but it is arranged in such a way that it feels open and spacious - not having wide roads for traffic and parking means more space for landscaping and greenery;

There is some on-street parking along Vaubanallee, including loading space, accessible parking, pay-and-display and e-charging;

So, where are all the cars because Germany is not famous for being car-free. Well, Vauban is low-car rather than car-free because residents can own a car, it's just they can't leave it on the street, it has to be parked in a communal car park which they pay for, perhaps reflecting the true cost of storage. A city car club does allow people access to a car if they need one. 

One other eco-feature within the street network is a series of swales do deal with surface water run-off;

For more information on the background to the development, please look at Steve Melia's 2006 report of his visit. It's a fantastic concept, but it shows that decent public transport and access to cycling networks are required to give people genuine transport options. Definitely a place to spend time in if you get a chance.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Take Me Down To Luxembourg City

Take me down to Luxembourg City where the grass is green and the trams are pretty. Yes, I've been on holiday and of course, there was plenty of interesting transport-related stuff to see. This week, Luxembourg City.

Nestled between France, Germany and Belgium, Luxembourg is a small country and Luxembourg City is by far the largest urban area, although with around just under 120,000 citizens, its population and physical size seem small to an Outer London borough resident like me! First, here's my usual health warning that my views should be tempered with the fact that this was a holiday and a few days doesn't allow one to become an expert on how a city works!

We stayed at a campsite right on the edge of the city, some 4.5km from the historic core which is served by a a bus route which runs between one of the city's park and ride sites and the centre. We arrived on a Saturday during the city's Schueberfouer Fair season and which had free weekend bus travel to encourage people into the city. In fact, under 20s have free travel in any case.

So, we got the bus times and wandered to the stop for the 18 route passing the campsite and immediately had a taste of some of what was to come;

We had to wait at a temporary bus stop because of major road works along one of the main routes into the city, but a new pedestrian crossing and accessible bus stops were being built as part of the upgrade. Further north into the city, the works continued, including some bus priority. The 18 route is direct and has fairly well-spaced stops which works well with the high capacity bendy buses being used;

On the buses themselves we were treated to real-time route mapping which shows stops and interchange options (including cycling). Sorry London, this is head and shoulders above London Buses' offering!

The city bus network is extensive and so it is pretty simple to catch a bus from the suburbs to the city centre;

There were also plenty of roadworks going on in the city such as here on Boulevard Royal where the city's new tram line is being extended;

I did have half an idea to rent a cycle and pootle around the city, but the traffic on the main roads and the roadworks did rather put me off, so that might have to be a future visit. There is, however, a popular hire bike scheme operating in the city the Vel'oh with 100 docking stations across the city.

Getting into the city core immediately saw the noise left behind to an area which is largely pedestrianised;

There are some streets which still allow motor traffic and despite the park and ride sites outside the city, there are still city centre car parks which are by no means expensive. Seeing a pop-up beach built on an underground car park at the Place du Théâtre makes me wonder if there is a tussle going on with the car!

For cycling, there are routes through the city core along with contraflow cycling in one way streets. The busiest shopping streets don't allow cycling at peak times which is a bit disappointing, but similar to other cities I have visited - cutting through the city core is far nicer than the main roads of course.

The Place d' Armes is a wonderful square in the middle of the city which not only has extra seating for the resturants flanking it, but space for public events such as markets;

There is also a bandstand at one end which brought some music to the proceedings;

Away from the core, there are some large roads, including Avenue Emile Reuter which cuts through the city's Parc Municipal, although at least there is a half decent walking and cycling crossing to connect the two parts;

One very surprising thing we found was the Pfaffenthal neighbourhood to the northwest of the city centre along the Alzette River which flows within a gorge. An old part of the city is on the floor of the gorge and to connect the neighbourhood with the rest of the city, we found some unusual pieces of public transport. The Ascenseur Panoramique du Pfaffenthal connects the edge of the Parc Municipal to the Rue du Pont;

As well as being a great tourist attraction, the 71m elevator is free and open between 6am and 1am providing a direct and much needed public transport link between the two parts of the city.

On the other side of the gorge, there an another impressive piece of public transport in the form of the Pfaffenthal-Kirchberg Funicular which  gets people from the floor of the gorge up to Pfaffenthal-Kirchberg Station which also interchanges with the tram back to the city centre;

It's an impressive piece of engineering and of course another piece of fun to be had by a tourist!

There was more astonishment to be had. As we got out of the elevator, a sign caught our eye for the City Shuttle.

It's a test for autonomous vehicles which sees a 15 seater electric AV bus run between the elevator and the funicular;

Again, it was a but of fun, but on the serious side for me, it does rather suggest how far the technology has to go. The shuttle had a safety attendant who did have to fiddle with the on board computer to get the thing to move properly and the sensors were extremely cautious where other vehicles and people were concerned.

It's certainly interesting to see something running on live streets and not the test tracks and closed systems I have seen so far and potentially this could be a useful innovation to help people move within larger pedestrianised areas who might otherwise struggle, but there is a long way to go.

The tram system is being built and opened in stages and will eventually interchange with the city's central train station;

At the Pfaffenthal-Kirchberg Station stop, there was also a secure cycle park which hints at the efforts the city is making to link transit with cycling as a transport solution;

One thing which I found interesting (not being up on tram technology) is that some parts of the route ran without overhead wires which would great from a streetscape point of view and in some places, the route was almost like a linear park;

Finally, we have the rail system. With buses and the (under construction) tram connecting with Gare Centrale (central station), people making longer journeys can easily join one of the comfortable double-decker trains (modelled here with #TheDoodle);

The station serves as a hub for the rest of the country along with international services which really shows how the county is trying to position itself from a public transport point of view. Of course, the trains also have clearly marked cycling provision;

From a public transport integration point of view, Luxembourg City is fascinating because it is still clearly a place lots of people drive, but the alternatives are being built. I hope in the future there is some car restraint in the centre so space can be given back to the people. Even more astonishingly, public transport will be free across the whole country from next year.

That's not to say the outlook is utopia. There is criticism that the infrastructure is not keeping up with growth and demand and certainly I'm aware that away from the city, public transport is more patchy and the infrastructure old and in need of upgrade. This article from City Metric is probably a fair tempering of my holiday enthusiasm and reminds us of how much of a status symbol cars are for many people.

What Luxembourg City does show, however, is that there is a vision to make things better which is being backed up by civil engineering on the street and I wish them the best of luck with it.

Saturday, 31 August 2019


I've been thinking a lot about the things that I like in a street or a place and I have come to the realisation that the thing I am always trying to grasp for is somewhere that is peaceful.

It's actually quite a tricky thing to completely define because peaceful doesn't mean somewhere devoid of people, far from it and (he whispers) it doesn't always mean free of motor traffic.

Take the square outside Malmö Central Station. It has buses and general traffic going through it and it has a steady stream of people walking and cycling through it, but I would say it is peaceful;

This is the heart of old Deventer in the Netherlands. OK, no motor traffic here, but a busy with people, but it is a peaceful place to stroll around admiring the street and the shops;

Lauenburg near Hamburg has plenty of parking along its old streets, but again, it's peaceful;

Closer to home, we have the nice end of Exhibition Road in London. Whatever you think of the overall design, people can stand in the middle of the area people can drive through with abandon;

Not too far away, we have Covent Garden which I don't find peaceful at all. It's too crowded in the pedestrianised area and there's too much rat-running traffic on the streets surrounding it;

Francis Road in Waltham Forest. Car-free and not too many people, so I think it's a peaceful place. Perhaps the guy in my photo is actually an indicator - being able to perch on a bench and make a phone call without shouting;

The middle of Cambridge city centre. For me, it's probably getting a little too busy with people to be peaceful for my liking;

Bruges in the run up to Christmas is probably not a peaceful place for me;

Coronation Street, Salford. Yes, very peaceful, despite there being being a 40mph dual carriageway behind it.

One more. An open space in Stevenage. It's quiet, but is that the same as peaceful? I don't think so, I think it is lonely.

There will be people who have agreed with me on all of these examples, but probably most people will have been shouting at their screen disagreeing. The Stevenage example might not be lonely if a few people per minute cycled past. The Deventer example might feel too lonely at 3am. Covent Garden would feel a lot more peaceful at 6am when workers are out cleaning the streets.

My point here is that it is very hard to distill "peaceful" into a formula or a checklist. It is subjective. It changes with the time of day and the time of year. One person's peaceful might be too lonely for another.

For me, though, here is a list of things which I think contribute to a peaceful street or place, but even these are a bit either/ or in part;

  • Low levels of through motor traffic;
  • If there is through motor traffic, it needs to be well away from people;
  • Slow motor traffic speeds;
  • People on the street, walking, cycling or sitting;
  • The highway elements of the street forming a backdrop to the setting;
  • Seating, both formal and informal;
  • Trees;
  • Space for people to walk and cycle away from people who want to pause or wait;
  • Playful features to provide some fun or a focal point;
  • Enough going on over as many hours as possible;
  • Children and older people are the indicator species.
What do you think? What have I missed and what should I have left out?