Saturday 3 September 2016

Building Resilience

There's a subject which I don't think gets discussed enough and that is transport resilience, so this week, here are a few thoughts on the subject (at least how I see it).

Resilience is an interesting concept which essentially means the ability to which something (or someone) can recover from a difficulty or set of difficulties; that is to say, how we can get back to business as usual, or how we can adapt when business as usual is not an option. 

The concept is common in emergency planning circles (the modern equivalent of civil defence) and flooding is a good example of the process. As we have seen countless times, communities are being flooded, but the media often concentrates on the initial emergency response rather than the aftermath where it takes months or years to recover. Those who are resilient are able to get back to normality a lot more quickly and this is often because their infrastructure has been developed to facilitate such. 

By infrastructure, I mean a range of things. Physical infrastructure such as a home which has been pragmatically designed or retrofitted to cope with flooding in terms of flood barriers, internal drainage (to drain after a flood), electrical circuits higher up around walls (rather than under ground floors) are good examples. Physical infrastructure could be across the wider area with flood defences, sustainable drainage systems and it could be even wider with flood management on a catchment-wide basis. We also have social infrastructure which could be help given by family, friends, the local council or regional authorities (going up the scale). 

With the flooding example, lots of small elements can add up to something much bigger than the sum of it's parts and even if some of those parts fail, the system is pretty resilient. Compare this to a big piece of physical infrastructure failing and this could still overwhelm (actually and figuratively) people's resilience. So, the key is to spread out the risks, to have backup plans, be able to adapt to changing circumstances; that is resilience.

Thinking about transport and especially the huge schemes we seem to build in the UK, it's an approach which doesn't build resilience as it makes us reliant on a few or single modes. Inter-urban travel in the UK is almost exclusively provided by the motorway network. That's not because towns aren't connected by railways, it's because motorways are essentially free at the point of use (assuming one has access to a fuelled car) whereas a long train journey can come with an eye-watering ticket price and it's not a door to door service. 

For goods, we are now reliant on long-distance delivery models which require the use of articulated lorries which (if we are honest) are too big for many urban places, but as well as serving "just in time" depots, they are used for deliveries to the convenience stores now taken over by the big chains. Of course, the use of road transport requires other infrastructure such as the fuel supply chain (or electricity grid if we maintain business as usual going into the near future). Home shopping still relies on the mono-culture of road transport, although it's interesting as it means individuals don't need to make the journey to purchase something and perhaps a postal vehicle is more efficient than a dozen people driving to a retail park.

Away from inter-urban travel, getting around urban areas is often difficult (even in London which has many options) because transport is often arranged radially around town and city centres. This is fine if you are near a radial route and the centre is your destination, but generally useless for orbital journeys and local journeys, so again, we end up with motor transport fulfilling the needs of those who can afford it or trains for those who can also afford it (often people can't afford either). We also have buses, but in most of the UK, they are unreliable, expensive and often stuck in traffic.

So what has this to do with resilience? We rely heavily on the road network in the UK and it doesn't take much for the system to go wrong. A crash on a motorway essentially reduces capacity (even to zero) and the resulting congestion quickly spread to adjacent areas where local roads are expected to take up the slack. Sometimes it's the sheer weight of traffic on a road into town when demand exceeds capacity leading to congestion and then calls for "road improvements". We are constantly told about the cost of congestion and the need to invest in road building to "smooth traffic flow" and provide "consistent journey times". We have this on trains to some extent, but being under tightly controlled conditions it's not the same. Congestion on the railways is more about passenger demand exceeding physical space on the trains or within stations. 

It's not a resilient system if it keeps breaking down in this way and indeed; it doesn't serve huge swathes of the population who are accommodated at the edges (or marginalised) and so we need to radically change our approach. From the urban point of view, the answers are of course staring ourselves in the face and it is that we must prioritise walking and cycling as they are the most resilient modes of transport we have; cycling has the edge because it is easier to cycle a few miles than it is to walk, but prioritising walking enables those short local and neighbourhood-based trips. This in turn favours the use of local shops rather than the big box stores, it helps develop social networks through human interaction which is resilience building in its own right.

Children getting to school under their own steam means that parents might have more time available (driving the kids to school because the roads are unsafe means that some parents end up pressured with a lack of time) and the children gain transport independence which is a more resilient system. For the 2/3 of trips which are below 5 miles it is cycling which has the greatest potential for mode shift, but as with walking, it needs to be based on good networks of enabling infrastructure and the stark reality is that this means the rebalancing of our streets away from the private motor car. 

This means the allocation of physical space for walking and cycling, plus is means where traffic signals are concerned, taking green time away from motor traffic; in many places, there isn't any green time for walking, let alone cycling. Of course, if we were doing really well, then we would unravel modes so we don't need to have people walking and cycling needing to encounter too many traffic signals as they are generally a motor traffic solution to a motor traffic problem.

What of buses, taxis and trams? Buses and trams (and indeed light rail more generally) must be part of the transport mix to be sure, but they are lower down the priority than walking and cycling for me. Buses can use the streets of course, but routes often get taken into places where vehicles of that size should be going. It's certainly a problem in London where any scheme which has an impact bus routes is often met with staunch opposition from Transport for London and people object to buses being routed on their streets. In suburban areas it's even more tricky as it is the bus which is often the only public transport available. 

Trams and light rail can provide high capacity, but they are not flexible in terms of route and so can perhaps provide a larger grained network; they can provide links between heavy rail and so give some of the orbital options which are needed. Of course, having a fixed track locks in space to serve the mode. Taxis also provide an important door-to-door function, but they will only ever serve a relatively small population. They should have priority for space over private cars, but they are not a transport solution and they suffer the same lack of resilience of any motorised mode and let's be honest, the rise of Uber and Google is pushing for a system which does away with drivers in any case and so the jobs of taxi (and indeed bus) drivers could well be numbered.

Freight is the other part of the resilience jigsaw and probably the trickiest to unpick given how things are currently set up, but the answer has to be that HGV traffic is confined to main routes serving distribution centres which then have loads broken down for local delivery. On the main routes, there is a good argument for dual-use bus and lorry lanes to prioritise the needs of bus passengers and deliveries. Many logistics firms are doing this in reality where they know they cannot physically fit large vehicles everywhere, and e-cargobikes will be the very local solution. Consolidation is another area where freight can be managed where businesses in an area can get together to bulk-order common supplies which can cut costs and reduce the number of delivery vehicles needed.

Having genuine choice and flexibility in how we travel are the keys to resilient transport, but it takes physical changes to enable this. It is why decades of encouraging cycling with events and training has not created a modal shift and is why in places where decent stuff is built, it becomes heavily used very quickly. For walking, places which put the pedestrian first are popular and in town centres, it's the pedestrians keeping local economies alive.

People often think that technology will save us, well it won't. We are talking about the allocation of space here. Smart motorways, taxi-apps, intelligent parking systems, electric cars and self driving cars are often held up as the future, but in truth, they maintain the current position. We might squeeze a little more capacity out of our road networks, but like new kerbs and tarmac, it will get used up.

Transport affects all of us on a daily basis one way or another. The fact that we have invested our efforts in enabling mass motoring mean that we have lost our resilience, we have put our rotten eggs in one basket you might say. Whether we drive or not, we are dependant on a system we we cannot control and in some ways it controls us. It needs to change.


  1. I suggest you look at the blog called Strong Towns. It's more of a US (and in a very similar way, Canada) site, but the UK does have some things that reminds me of the US in terms of urban design. Especially the stroads and the big box stores.

    I suggest several fundamental shifts. First, we go and ask the Dutch for some help in flood control. Their country isn't half underwater for a reason, heck, a whole province was built because of flood control. Then, we adopt renewable power sources, low emissions manufacturing and electrify our transport networks to reduce the warming problem that leads to many more floods and weather problems.

    Next, our cities take a dramatic shift. More locally owned or small chains of less than maybe 10 locations in no more than 2 or three counties, on high streets and access roads only. People mostly live in rowhouses or flats, mainly the former, building up makes us more compact. Combined with keeping local shops that cover everything from food to banks to offices and bike repairs, it makes us much more compact and less need of cars. Oh, and ban big box stores, nothing over a thousand six hundred square metres.

    And as for our transportation system, we should undo that Breeching axe. It was foolish to do it to our railway systems in the first place. Bring them back! Make the trains like the Dutch railway system where it's high speed, electric, double tracked where they aren't already, modern signals and with modern and clean stations that are accessible with electronics and modern fare systems. At least 130 km/h, up to 160 on main lines and 250-350 on the international and intercountry routes like Glasgow to London, and reduce the number of level crossings even on standard routes. Also, freight trains should become much more common, the number of lorries would be by far reduced.

    Motorways themselves could become automated for the most part. They have no conflicts and with computers controlling the things, even if it's just trucks following a line of magnets like the Phileas in Eindhoven, it works far more effectively.

    Lorries, of those that remain, should be restricted to the motorways and the few metres off the motorway onto distribution centres if they are over 7500 kg (dual carriageways that are like the Dutch autowegen also count). Of those that are over 3500 kg, they should be restricted to distributor roads. Vans are allowed on access roads, although cargo bikes should be more promoted. The lorries over 3500 kg would be required to have those safer lorries and direct vision systems that the LCC is such in favour of.

    I think that motorways should mostly be restricted to 2, never more than 3 lanes, with the hard shoulder being 3.5 metres wide that can be opened with electronics during congested periods and with a concrete barrier in the middle (of the central reservation not shoulder), with a design speed and speed limit of 130 km/h. This makes it work quite well, and I think that most of the remaining duals should be updated to motorway standard. I don't think that there should be 2+2 roads with barriers in the middle that are not designed to motorway standards, the road is just going to be too big to self enforce any other behavior.

    For countryside roads, I think that they should be changed to Dutch countryside design standards. I think that the speed limit will need to go down to 70 or at the most 80 if there is a grass strip in the middle and there are only roundabouts at junctions. Service roads designed and limited to either 40 km/h or 60 km/h would be required to make cycling, even in the countryside, attractive. They also provide a function on distributor roads by providing a place for slow vehicles like mopeds and tractors.

    1. In the urban area, buses could and should mostly have a guide system like the philias in Eindhoven with magnets although a driver is still a good idea, with mostly reserved lanes that emergency vehicles could also benefit from, maybe even those HGVs under 7500 kg too, with their own independent signals. But never at the cost of no protected cycleways or at least 1.75 metre wide cycle lanes with low motor vehicle volumes on distributor roads.

      A lot of this has to do with Sustainable Safety Netherlands as you might imagine. Guidance systems with tailgating sensors would be a major step and very well may near eliminate motorway crashes and likely would near eliminate the congestion. Big things don't mix with small things, and medium sized things don't mix with small things above a certain speed and volume. As for resilience, we have strong towns that can resist bank failures and international recessions and other economic pressures that can quickly change into some other form of land use if needed, I mean, the model's been working from the time of the Romans, even earlier. We'd also have a system that keeps us having options. And the deliveries can still get by at the end of the day. I call that a win.

  2. Interesting (but not necessarily surprising) you didn't mention the one great piece of urban travel infrastructure that probably allows London to work at all. The Tube.

    There's an obvious chicken and egg situation with ground-based mass transit in that buses won't get faster or more reliable without clearing a large volume of motor cars off the road network. But drivers won't suddenly go over to using buses while they're still slow and unreliable. (For example, my journey to work is about 30 minutes by car, 1 hour plus by buses [plural]. I've also been left standing - literally - as a bus operator withdrew a service without notice, there one day, gone the next). Trams or Bus Rapid Transit require extra land-take, or losing road space, which is unacceptable for most local politicians, not least because it puts the stick before the carrot.

    I suspect one reason you might not have mentioned it is (apart from it being just such an intrinsic part of Londoners experience it blurs into the background), that other UK cities having such infrastructure, or rather, having that much money spent on them, is virtually unthinkable, laughable even. I hope to be corrected.

    BTW, below is a link to an excellent blog which shatters many of the myths surrounding investment in, amongst other things, transport infrastructure outside our great capital.

    Andy R.

  3. It's relatively rare (outside of flooding) for a "Road Closed" sign to practically apply to those on foot or bike.

  4. Resilence to weather events is another issue which can only grow in importance: floods, storms, etc. Relying on roads introduces a Single Point of Failure in the system.

    FWIW, Home Depot in the US have their shops designed to be ready-for-hurricanes: their stock keeping and billing is local to each store, backup generators etc. After the storm, people need to rebuild their houses, so the shops plan for it.

    Similarly google & amazon place their datacentres on different fault lines, so that a single earthquake won't permanently lose data. They don't plan for Asteroids or "exchange of strategic nuclear armaments" —but everything short of that they plan for. And they rehearse: .

  5. BTW, regarding automation, nobody has discussed that HGV peletons would work better in the fast lane, so that a train of 20+ vehicles wouldn't block on/off ramps without complex motorway entry/exit protocols which would only work with other automated vehicles . As fuel economy increases at lower speeds, and without the need to pay driver hours, the convoy speed may drop to something like 55 mph. The hard shoulder expansion procoess should really be planning ahead for that