This is a guest post from Bridget Burdett. She is a principal researcher at TDG (now part of Stantec). She has a Bachelor of Engineering and Masters of Engineering in Transportation, and is in the final stages of a PhD in the psychology of everyday driving. Here she writes about one of her current passions, which is demonstrating links between transport, wellbeing, and inclusiveness. [email protected] @bridget_burdett
I was in a meeting a couple of years ago about planning for cycling in Waikato Region. We were discussing cycling connections to Hamilton Gardens. A senior representative from local government (an engineer) made an off-hand comment that it would be useful to connect the cycleway to the Hamilton Gardens because “that would complete the network”. The idea that access to the Gardens had merit all by itself was dismissed as an arbitrary bonus. My heart sank.
I don’t think that many transportation engineers pause to consider what they are here for. They’re creatures of action, engineers, born and then conditioned at Engineering School to churn through a problem by rote. I know this because I’m an Engineer. I spent four years at Engineering School at the University of Canterbury, learning how to design bridges and beams and columns and foundations and roads and dams and pipes and landfills and water treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants. The design process was explicitly and implicitly drummed into our minds: define your scope, declare your constraints, make assumptions where the data isn’t clear, pick the best material to solve the problem, look up that material’s properties, work out how much of that material you need, stop.
The problem with the engineer’s design method is that it doesn’t work well when your material is a bunch of humans. Civil engineering is useful but only for designing materials with predictable, measurable, consistent properties, like concrete and water.
Transportation is about people. Too often what transportation engineers actually focus on is traffic, and cars. We pretend that it’s about people and community, but decisions are based almost exclusively on analysis of traffic volumes, because that’s all the data that we’ve got. What about the trips people don’t make because they don’t have a car, or it’s too expensive, or they get halfway and the footpath is blocked, or because they’re blind and the taxi drivers charge them more than they are supposed to?
Use other hemisphere. pic.twitter.com/iNE5XTEqD5
— Bridget Burdett (@Bridget_Burdett) October 20, 2016
Transportation engineers speak volumes about traffic volumes. We know how to find out how many cars and trucks use almost any road in the country. A lot of traffic volume data is publicly accessible, and updated every year. Traffic volume data is only going to get more accessible – google will even tell you how busy roads are, and how busy they typically are at different times of the day and week.
It might seem that we’re also collecting more data about people and their movement. We have a household travel survey every year, which is shifting to GPS-based mapping from this year. Statistics NZ collect information in the Census about household access to a car, which can be used to map disparity between Census Area Units. But transport engineers don’t use much of this data at all. You can search most reports written by transport engineers and not find the word ‘people’.
When I stop to think about what I’m here for, I think about wellbeing. We measure travel times, but for what? An assumed link with economic productivity, but what’s the use of that, if not to improve wellbeing? Advice from our Treasury insists that we should consider wellbeing at every level of policy, but who does that, and how?
So to get better at linking transport and wellbeing, I think we need to change the way we analyse policy, and we need to change the data we use to advocate for better decision-making. Advocates and professionals alike can use better data now. We can include community demographic statistics in transport reports to highlight to decision-makers that there are real people in the community where works are proposed. We already include a site summary and map (and of course, traffic volumes on local streets) in every report we produce, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to also describe the community in terms of who the people are. We can count people, and use data about who is not participating to highlight access problems.
At policy level, we should make much more use of statistics about car ownership. In dense areas like the Auckland CBD it can highlight ‘car-freedom’, and in poorer places like Huntly West and Tokoroa, where over 20% of households have no access to a car, it can be used to advocate for safer, more accessible walking infrastructure, for a start.
We should also start to get serious cross-sector conversations going, so that ultimately we can define mutually beneficial objectives, with teams of people who speak both languages. There is merit to linking hospital admissions data with crash reports. There is value in linking public transport planning with District Health Boards, to make sure people get to appointments but also to everyday activities that are determinants of good health.
I was in another meeting a couple of years ago, discussing the location of the public bus stop at Waikato Hospital. After an hour of robust debate, one of the DHB staff who worked in facilities management threw his hands in the air and decreed “but transport is not our core business!”.
Therein lies the problem. Transport is involved in everyone’s business, but connecting it to wellbeing is nobody’s job. It’s up to the public to demand that connections between transport and wellbeing are stronger, and it’s up to professionals to recognise opportunities to bridge these very important gaps. It’s okay, engineers are good at bridges.