Paper on disruptions as opportunities for transport policy change

Greg Marsden and IainDocherty have just had a paper published in the journal Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice on “Insights on disruptions as opportunities for transport policy change”.

The paper is open access and can be downloaded for free from:

Marsden, Greg, and Iain Docherty. “Insights on disruptions as opportunities for transport policy change.” Transportation research part A: policy and practice 51 (2013): 46-55. DOI: 10.1016/j.tra.2013.03.004


Policy change is characterised as being slow and incremental over long time periods. In discussing a radical shift to a low carbon economy, many researchers identify a need for a more significant and rapid change to transport policy and travel patterns. However, it is not clear what is meant by rapid policy change and what conditions might be needed to support its delivery.

Our contention in this paper is that notions of habit and stability dominate thinking about transport trends and the policy responses to them. We limit variability in our data collection and seek to design policies and transport systems that broadly support the continuation of existing practices. This framing of the policy context limits the scale of change deemed plausible and the scope of activities and actions that could be used to effect it.

This paper identifies evidence from two sources to support the contention that more radical policy change is possible. First, there is a substantial and on-going churn in household travel behaviour which, harnessed properly over the medium term, could provide the raw material for steering behaviour change. Secondly, there is a growing evidence base analysing significant events at local, regional and national level which highlight how travellers can adapt to major change to network conditions, service availability and social norms. Taken together, we contend that the population is far more adaptable to major change than the policy process currently assumes.

Disruptions and the responses to them provide a window on the range of adaptations that are possible (and, given that we can actually observe people carrying them out, could be more widely acceptable) given the current configuration of the transport system. In other words, if we conceptualise the system as one in which disruptions are commonplace, then different policy choices become tractable. Policy change itself can also be seen as a positive disruption, which could open up a raft of new opportunities to align policy implementation with the capacity for change.

However, when set against the current framing of stability and habit, disruption can also be a major political embarrassment. We conclude that rather than being inherently problematic, disruption are in fact an opportunity through which to construct a different approach to transport policy that might enable rather than frustrate significant, low carbon change.

LSTF Practitioners Workshop: Quest Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning

On 16th May David attended the LSTF Practitioners Workshop in Birmingham. David provided a short presentation outlining the initial findings of the Disruption project to local authority officers. David also took the opportunity to highlight that the Local Transport Survey 2013 is currently open for completion by local authority officers and anyone working in the local transport sector. The survey will remain open until 30/06/13 and can be found by following this link: Local Transport Survey 2013.

A copy of David’s presentation can be found by following this link: David Williams’ Presentation – LSTF Practitioners Workshop May 2013

Systems Thinking, Air Quality and Disruption

On Wednesday 15th May, Tim has been invited to participate in a high profile workshop about sorting out Bristol’s traffic related air pollution problems. The workshop, hosted at Bristol University by Sustain and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership will take a systems thinking approach to tacking the problem. It will be interesting to see what the Disruption project my have to offer.

Making Mixed-Methods Work in Transport Research: Workshop, 20th June 2013, Leeds

The Disruption project is linking with the Travel Behaviours Network ( ) to run a workshop on ‘Making Mixed Methods Work’ in relation to transport research.

The event is free and will be held in Leeds on 20th June 10-4pm.

Making Mixed-Methods Work
Travel Behaviours Workshop, 20th June 2013, Leeds

Call for Papers

It is well accepted that understanding our mobility decisions requires an active consideration of the interfaces between factors such as land-use patterns, work and leisure practices, family structures, and technologies. Such understandings can only be brought about through the application of different theoretical framings of the problem, different methodological responses to the problem, and the exploration of the problem and its contexts using different toolkits of methods. It is contended that unlocking critical policy understandings requires multi-pronged approaches. However, interlinking different theories, methodologies and methods creates real practical and intellectual challenges.

This workshop will seek to understand the variety of research methods that researchers are using to engage with communities and make sense of the processes that inform our travel practices. We would like to encourage submissions from project teams that both wish to give a presentation but also develop a paper for a Special Issue of a journal.

Submissions are invited that address questions related to interdisciplinary methodological practices and may address a variety of issues such as: novel methods, new methodological considerations; mixing of methods, the role of new technologies, crowd sourcing, when things go wrong and of course when things go right.

While the session seeks contributions in the traditional paper format, it also seeks to encourage other forms of audience engagement such as demos, audience participation activities and discussion.

See the attached PDF for more information. Please submit a title and abstract of up to 250 words to Jane Macdonald  by 31st March 2013.

Priority will be given to attendees involved in the papers but anyone is welcome to register an interest to attend with

This workshop is being organised by the Travel Behaviours Network ( The network is funded by the RCUK Energy Programme and aims to bring together a series of interdisciplinary, cross council research projects exploring how to reduce energy use from transport.

Further information can be downloaded here.

Making the most of a bad situation…..

The media have been giving lots of attention to the situation in New York with Hurricane Sandy this week (notably more than Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti received, but that is another issue).  In Workpackage 6 we are looking at what the concept and study of ‘Disruption’ might mean for the development of low carbon travel practices, and now in New York we have a world class example.

There is a proverbial saying that the Chinese word for opportunity is the same as their word for crisis.  Whether this is actually true or not is not important, what it highlights is the potential to take an unavoidable bad situation and make the most of it.  What we have found in the Disruption project so far that the reaction in disruptive situations is for policy and governmental actors to focus on ‘getting things back to normal’ as soon as possible.

When faced with a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% or more, in terms of sustainability, normality is no longer a credible option.  The sort of change we need to bring about is unlikely to be achievable by a slow, gradual downsizing (we have probably left that too late now).  What is needed is more like a step-change in the way we do things.

Disruptive events like Hurricane Sandy provide us just the opportunity to do this!

Do people change their behaviour during and after such events? Yes – often because they have no alternative, but sometimes because they are encouraged to do so.

Take for example the measures that have been introduced in New York over the last few days to force people to intensively car share (minimum 3 people!) or use public transport by making the subway free.

What will be interesting to see is if there are any efforts made to ‘lock in’ the changes that these measures will bring about, or if there will be an intentional, or accidental, slip back to the same old patterns of high carbon transport that existed before (and possibly contributed to) Hurricane Sandy and the devastation she caused……

Disruption in New York

Disruption in New York

Flood Survey Reflections

A team of researchers spent the weekend out interviewing people in Cawood, Naburn, Acaster Malbis and York talking to households and businesses affected by the flood. Fortunately the number of houses affected in the areas I visited were small compared with 2000 in part due to the slightly lower water levels and in part due to small improvements to the flood defences which, for example, kept one road out of Naburn open. Driving and walking around now, it is hard to believe that there was a flood, with the exception that Cawood bridge remains closed and riverside fields and caravan parks remain under water.

It is early days to be able to generalise about what the interviews found. However, the ones I did showed how varied the responses might be. For those who have jobs where work can be done flexibly from home there was little direct impact. That is, unless one also had children who were due to attend the school which was closed. This led to a series of traded favours amongst the community in the case that both parents worked. Arrangements were in some instances quite fragile. Interestingly no-one I spoke with described there as being anything other than an immediate loss, with work being flexible and understanding and workload simply being “caught up” over the coming week or two.

Food shopping patterns changed, particularly as home deliveries were unable to be delivered. Most people actually had enough in their fridges and cupboards to be able to get through with a little top up shop at a nearby garage or en-route home. Some of the longer-term residents had stocks of food in the freezer for just such an eventuality. It was surprising to a degree just how ‘normal’ this event was. For someone new to the area there was a sense of calm as the rising waters followed a pattern which others knew and understood.

We’ll find out more about business impacts over the coming weeks. I met with a farmer who had to make significant adaptations to their livestock housing and who lost a lot of arable crops at various stages of planting. It will take 2 to 3 years to get back in cycle there. A local caravan park was significantly affected but still had spaces on one high area. However, the lack of local bus service meant that those with motor homes that usually accessed York by bus left the site.

This will be my last blog post on the flood – we are moving now into a phase of data analysis and then feedback – both to the local authorities and parish councils and to the Disruption project

Football pitches at Tadcaster

Disruption project hits the wet streets of Yorkshire

This weekend the project is deploying a team of researchers out to York and surrounding villages to investigate the impacts of the recent flooding.

York and Tadcaster are reported as being ‘still open for business’ but evidence suggests people are doing something different.

We hope to find out more about what and why they have changed their plans and routines….

Watch this space…