Transport and Bath have an uneasy relationship. Pete Dyson, Bath’s Bicycle Mayor and author of the book ‘Transport For Humans’ is currently at the University of Bath researching policies to promote sustainable travel habits – here he shares his own perspective on what’s required.
Bath is an exceptional city with an historic list of obstacles; steep hills, river flooding, ancient buildings, post-industrial landscapes, extreme house prices and winding streets with residents, businesses, students and tourists vying for space (and a good view of it all).
Present-day Bathonians enjoy the ingenuity of previous generations who frequently found ways to thrive among these natural hot springs, to create architecture fit for steep hills, and to criss-cross railways between rivers, parks and canals. However, I’ve come to fear that features once serving as inspirations to innovate have become reasons for inaction. These excuses should endure no longer. A mindset shift is needed. When faced with 21st-century challenges – a climate crisis, poor air quality, high congestion, inaccessibility, unaffordability, road safety and much more – we cannot rely just one solution.
Transport contributes nearly one third of all CO2 emissions in Bath and North East Somerset. The city is already a hub, with 75% of the people driving to work in Bath doing so from outside Bath’s boundaries. Because electric vehicles cannot come soon enough, the council’s Journey To Net Zero plan estimates a need for a 25% reduction in vehicle miles in the coming six years to 2030. I wonder, does this sound intimidating? Or would travelling a bit differently (or a bit less) sound like a welcome relief? In the case of school travel, studies already find the majority of parents and children would rather walk and wheel rather than rely on driving. There’s a mismatch between the system we’ve got and the one we want.
A mindset shift is needed. When faced with 21st-century challenges – a climate crisis, poor air quality, high congestion, inaccessibility, unaffordability, road safety and much more – we cannot rely just one solution.
While the history books are full of grand proposals to build our way out of trouble; like Colin Buchanan’s Tunnel (1965), Croydon Marks’ Gradient Tramway (1895) or the cluster of multi-storey car parks (post-WW2), these don’t get to the root of the problem. Equally, present-day proposals are so frequently met with backlash, apathy and (at times) exclusion from the conversation. More than ever, we need an openness to change, better public engagement, an understanding of cooperation and a willingness to take the long view.
In my book, Transport For Humans, I show how travel is more than going from A to B. People are not cargo. Here I will extend an uncomfortable cliché – a better transport system in Bath starts with us.
Humility and openness to change
While living in Bath in 1816, Mary Shelley penned much of the world’s first science-fiction novel, Frankenstein. “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change,” wrote Shelley, who could scarcely have imagined the scale of the challenges ahead 200 years ago, yet understood the nature of them perfectly.
We’re inclined to fear change, deny and doubt the need for action in favour of maintaining the status quo. Too many people appear to want other people to travel differently. It’s a stalemate. I suggest citizens and elected officials need to confront the uncomfortable reality that transport (in all towns and cities) has longstanding problems. Let’s face it, for a long time transport has not been working particularly well for a lot of people, a lot of the time. Road safety, affordability, inequality, infrequent public transport services and congestion are themes of the past centuries, not just the decade. Personally, I’m supportive of proposed initiatives to re-balance our infrastructure, technologies and policies. What they need is better communication and understanding of people’s needs.
Public engagement and inclusion
Academics have long debated how to account for different people’s wants, needs and voices within a democratic society. In a transport context, the big actions come every few years when residents (note, these are not residents from neighbouring places, tourists, employees or children) get to vote for the people and their political parties to make big decisions on their behalf. Residents also have the right to express views through consultation along the way, but not to expect each one to be a definitive referendum on the topic.
It’s been acknowledged that the traditional consultation system comes too late in the process and under-represents certain groups. It’s therefore heartening to see how this has been improved with the new ‘Have Your Say West’ arriving much earlier in the design of a scheme to allow people to input on the design of transport corridors in Bath, Bristol and the Sommer Valley. Its Achillies heel remains the lack of adjustments to fully reach out to people with visual, auditory, cognitive and physical disabilities in a print, digital and in-person setting.
In my own research at University of Bath, I intend to investigate ways children (0–16yrs) can be represented as legitimate citizens with their own travel needs, rather than just through the preferences of their parents. I can imagine a future with easy-to-understand video presentations, community and local school outreach. The good news is that investing in inclusive consultation is a simple, morally responsible, quick and relatively inexpensive way to improve fairness and guard against costly design failures. Getting people more deeply involved in the process is the next hurdle.
The social psychologist Johnathon Haidt famously characterised people as 90% chimp and 10% bee: a rare blend of individual adaptability and collective cooperation that makes us uniquely 100% human. The greatest fallacy is to assume people are selfish and purely self-interested because this leads to narrow and paternalistic transport policies. It’s insufficient to think of people as individuals acting in response to incentives (carrots) and penalties (sticks). The reality is we regularly cooperate within our households, between friends, within neighbourhoods, organisations and communities to spread out the need to travel. This can be as simple as choosing a mutually convenient time and place to meet, or as complex as sharing a car or applying for a new cycle hangar.
Transport in Bath needs to know how people’s travel needs are both personally and socially constructed. Given the chance, people willingly collaborate to get better outcomes for themselves and their community.
My own research has primarily been in travel behaviour at a national scale. Compared to most countries, the UK is actually very good in having a National Travel Survey that gives impressive detail on how people travel (it helps that we’re an island, so it’s easier to measure). However at the regional scale, there are big gaps in knowledge about how people actually travel. Bath isn’t alone in relying on the Census (which only asks about commuting behaviour) and on observational studies (which just measure flows of traffic/pedestrians, with little insight into the people making the journey). Transport in Bath could invest more in travel behaviour research in order to improve the modelling that shapes scheme design. Unlike the incredulous letters I read in The Bath Chronicle, I am confident the local authorities have a stronger understanding of what the city and its people need to thrive.
The trouble with transport is everyone thinks they’re an expert, but we never really know where and why other people are travelling, so it pays to invest in quantitative and qualitative research that gives a more impartial perspective.
Endurance and long view
Finally I’m optimistic that Bath can reclaim its position as a place to thrive within a hilly, rainy and historic landscape. Fundamentally, we should expect our transport systems to adapt to our needs, not the other way around. It’s currently out of date and out of balance, producing too much environmental damage and excluding too many from realising a humane standard of mobility. This can change, but it will take investment from all angles – infrastructure, social research, public engagement, equitable policies – and, above all, a mindset shift towards openness to that change from everyone with a stake in the city.