The dash from cash: can public transport providers balance the needs of staff and customers?

One of the unexpected repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak has been an increased use of card, mobile and contactless payments instead of cash. Concerns about handling money during the pandemic have prompted shops and public transport services to encourage customers to use contactless payment methods. However, many people relying on public transport to access work and health services have no alternative but to use cash.

A brief history of contactless payments

Contactless payments include credit and debit cards, key fobs, closed loop smart cards and other devices, including smartphones. These applications use radio-frequency identification (RFID) or near field communication (NFC) for making secure payments. An embedded circuit chip and antenna enable consumers to make a payment by holding their card or device over a reader at a point of sale terminal.

The first contactless payment was made available in the United States at the end of the 1990s. In the UK the first contactless cards were issued in 2007.

The UK’s public transport contactless revolution began in 2014, when it became possible to access London’s Tube network, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London Overground and most National Rail services using only a bank card. By 2019, payments with contactless bank cards or mobiles made up 60% of all Tube and rail pay-as-you go journeys in London. Public transport authorities elsewhere in the UK have followed London’s lead.

The move towards cashless payments

Even before the current public health emergency, cash payments in the UK were in decline. In the past few years, there has been a shift towards the use of debit cards, while contactless payments have soared:

  • in the ten years up to 2019, cash payments dropped from 63% of all payments to 34%;
  • in 2017, contactless payments increased by 99% to 4.3 billion;
  • in the same year, 3.4 million UK consumers managed their spending almost entirely without using cash.
  • by 2028, forecasts suggest that fewer than one in 10 UK consumer payments will be made using cash.

The emergence of chip and pin, contactless cards, digital wallets and mobile apps has made many aspects of our lives much more convenient, notably when paying bills, purchasing goods and using public transport.

But although more and more people are moving away from cash payments, 2.2 million people rely almost wholly on cash – up from just 1.6 million in 2014. A Bank of England review in 2019 found that around eight million people  would find life “near impossible” without cash.

How Covid-19 is changing public transport

With high numbers of people in confined spaces and a large number of common touch points such as handrails and ticket machines, buses and trains are potentially high risk environments for Covid-19 transmission. At the same time, public transport is critical for sustaining the economy, and ensuring that people have access to shops, services, work and health care.

Public transport authorities around the world have been responding to the emergency in a number of ways, including increased disinfection and sanitisation, and encouraging physical distancing between passengers. Another key measure adopted by public transport bodies has been an acceleration away from cash payments and towards contactless and mobile ticketing.

While some bus operators have announced that they will no longer accept cash payments, others have warned that drivers could face disciplinary action if they refuse cash. Earlier this year, the trade union representing bus workers called for the abolition of cash payments on all UK buses to reduce infection rates among drivers.

Serving the ‘unbanked’

A recent webinar organised by Intelligent Transport explored the implications of the coronavirus public health emergency for public transport. One of the key points was that public transport operators now need to maintain a balance between protecting their staff while meeting the needs of passengers who may have no alternative but to make cash payments.

The webinar heard that there is a growing sense among public transport operators of a shift in perception concerning cash payments as a result of the global pandemic. However, cash payments remain vital for the 1.3 million UK adults who do not have a bank account (the ‘unbanked’), many of whom are on low incomes. Contactless cards may be unaffordable for lower-income passengers, while many unbanked passengers worry that contactless credit cards could lead to accidental overdraft.

As the webinar noted, public transport providers have been trying to overcome these obstacles. Some have continued to accept cash payments, while others have offered passengers their own prepaid cards that can be topped up with cash in shops or transport stations.

Final thoughts

It’s likely that public transport authorities will continue the drive towards cashless and contactless payment. Lower maintenance costs, speed and flexibility are some of the advantages provided by contactless applications, and transport companies can also benefit from the data on transport usage generated by electronic payment systems.

However, the migration from payments using physical money risks leaving over a million UK citizens behind. In the ‘new normal’ for a world living with the coronavirus, transport organisations will have to find innovative ways to balance the safety of their staff with the needs of their passengers.


Further reading
Articles on public transport on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team

The Knowledge Exchange remains open for business and continues to provide current awareness and enquiries services to our clients. If you have any questions, please get in touch.

The economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak: what the experts are saying

While the coronavirus outbreak is first and foremost a public health emergency, the economic damage caused by the pandemic is also a huge concern. In recent weeks, think tanks and economists have been offering their thoughts on just how badly they believe the economy will be affected by Covid-19, and how long it might take to recover.

With each passing week it’s emerging that the economic impact of the coronavirus could be more severe than first thought. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that the shutdown of economic activity in the world’s major economies is likely to trigger a far more painful recession than the one following the financial crisis of 2008. The IMF now believes that the world is facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the UK, an equally gloomy prognosis has come from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government’s fiscal watchdog. Its stark assessment of the possible economic impact of Covid-19 indicates that the UK economy could shrink by 35% and unemployment could rise to more than two million.

The regional picture

The economic impact of coronavirus is varying significantly across the country. Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) has revealed that the decline in economic output is estimated to reach almost 50% in parts of the Midlands and the North West in the second quarter of this year. In terms of decline in Gross Value Added (GVA), Pendle in the North West is estimated to be the hardest hit local authority in the UK, followed closely by South Derbyshire and Corby in the East Midlands.

In Scotland, since the coronavirus outbreak began, the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) has been publishing regular updates about how business is being affected.

The FAI’s most recent survey of Scottish businesses  finds that, while all sectors of the Scottish economy have been severely affected by the crisis in terms of staffing levels, the accommodation and food services sector (which includes hotels, bars and restaurants) has experienced the harshest impacts, with 77% of businesses reducing staff numbers. In addition, 85% of businesses expect growth in the Scottish economy to be weak or very weak over the next 12 months.

On a more positive note, the FAI survey found that more than 95% of businesses which are planning to use the UK government’s  Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme believe it will be ‘very effective/effective’ in supporting their survival during the pandemic.

Business and employment support

The Job Retention Scheme is one of a series of measures introduced by the UK government aiming to limit the impact of the coronavirus, and ensure much of the economy is able to recover when the health crisis is over. While these actions have been widely welcomed, there have been calls for the UK to learn from more innovative measures adopted by other governments.

A report by the Policy Exchange think tank has highlighted Denmark’s wage subsidy, which is differently calibrated to the Job Retention scheme in the UK. While the Danish government is covering 75% of the salaries of employees paid on a monthly basis who would otherwise have been fired, for hourly workers the government will cover 90% of their wages, up to £3,162 per month. The Policy Exchange report notes that this assumes that workers paid by the hour won’t have the savings and support networks that generally better off salaried workers are likely to have.

Household challenges

The bigger economic picture is bad enough. But the real pain of an economic recession will be felt much closer to home. For individual households, social distancing measures aiming to contain the spread of coronavirus are already having significant impacts on spending habits. Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has highlighted how these changes may be affecting people on different incomes.

The IFS suggests that richer households will be more resilient to falls in income since a considerable proportion of their spending goes on things that are currently not possible, such as eating out and holidays. But because lower-income households spend a higher share of their income on necessities, such as rent and food, the IFS suggests that they will be less resilient to any fall in income.

Exiting lockdown

In recent days, governments in France and Germany have set out plans for easing their lockdown restrictions, while Austria and Italy have already allowed some shops to open.  But the UK government has extended its lockdown to the beginning of May, and has not announced a clear exit strategy.

The uncertainty surrounding the trajectory of the coronavirus makes it exceptionally difficult to see when things might return to normal. But some analysts are becoming concerned about the harm that a prolonged lockdown might do.  A discussion paper published at the beginning of April highlighted some of these dangers:

“A long lockdown will wipe out large swathes of the economy. There will be a negative impact both financially and mentally on too many people. Already the lockdown has seen a surge in domestic violence. How to end the lockdown is key to helping restart the economy.”

The authors of the paper have put forward a strategy for ending the lockdown, suggesting that a phased traffic light approach (red, amber, green) would give everyone a clear sense of direction and address the economic, social and quality of life challenges posed by the lockdown.

After the virus

There is no clear agreement among economists on how the economy might fare once the health emergency has passed. Some economists forecast a sharp recovery, others suggest it will take two or more quarters, while still others forecast an initial boost in activity followed by another dip when the effects of unemployment and corporate bankruptcies start to filter through.

But there is a growing sense that the pandemic will have a fundamental impact on the economic and financial order. And in the UK, Paul Johnson, director of the IFS,  has suggested there will be an economic reckoning:

 “We will need a complete reappraisal of economic policy once the current economic dislocation is behind us. Tough decisions will have to be made which are likely to involve tax rises and higher debt for some time to come. The only other alternative would be another period of austerity on the spending side. That looks unlikely.”


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team

A message to all subscribers to
The Knowledge Exchange information service

We are open for business and continue to provide current awareness and enquiries services to our clients. If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Guest Post: Will coronavirus be the catalyst for lasting air quality improvements?

By Freddie Talberg

‘Unprecedented’ has been the word of the moment as we find ourselves living through a health pandemic, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.

Who would have thought, even last month, that we would be faced with school closures, panic buying and huge bailouts of the economy that make Boris Johnson’s government look like Clement Attlee’s?

We will not know the long-term impact of this pandemic for months, maybe even years, but in the short-term as business braces for a bumpy ride ahead and our health system prepares for its most pressurised moment since the founding of the welfare state, we can look for some glimmers of light in the darkness.

In both China and Italy, there have been significant and immediate reductions in levels of air pollution in response to government lockdowns to tackle the virus outbreak. Research suggests a 25% drop in energy usage in the former that could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. In Italy, the vision of Venice’s canals running clear puts into perspective how quickly a reduction in human activity can positively improve air quality.

Looking around London, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just days in. Almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre significantly down. This is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.

We should be careful about the conclusions that can be made from this. These positive environmental effects are down a significant government intervention that has essentially shut down all economic activity in response to a major public health emergency. These measures are going to take a toll on our wellbeing and can in no way be considered a sustainable solution.

But it makes me wonder. Can we possibly balance economic and social wellbeing whilst having a meaningful impact upon pollution levels in our cities? We will not be able to see the long-term legacy of this pandemic for years, but we should think about what we want it to be.

In my opinion, if one thing emerges above all else as the one thing we learn from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures it has enforced, is that we must reconsider certain aspects of our lives that we deem necessary and the long-term impact that our actions have on air quality. Seeing how much more vulnerable those with underlying health issues, including chronic lung conditions, are to the coronavirus says so much about the importance of good air quality.

We have to emerge from this crisis with a completely different attitude on how we tackle air quality issues and how we protect lung health.

The excellent quality open source data, such as that provided by the European Space Agency showing Italy and by NASA showing China, allows us to monitor the impacts of lockdown measures and track air pollution in real-time. This sort of tracking has to continue  once restrictions are lifted and include specific remediations, in order to prevent a spike in pollutive activity.

Families are going to travel to visit loved ones not seen for months across the country and the world, or they will take that holiday they had to cancel. Businesses meanwhile will look to make up for lost time and industrial production will ramp up. ‘Flatten the curve’ has been the government’s motto around coronavirus, and should be the world’s motto regarding emissions after this is over.

We therefore must have practical solutions in place. Taking control of emissions is difficult at the best of times, but technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and act on air quality, on a scale that works for them – it is not just a job for the world’s largest space agencies.

EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific, actionable evidence about emission breaches delivered straight to their mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps every day to improve air quality.

It may not seem the priority right now but this pandemic does not change that we are in an ongoing climate crisis. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and it is a wake-up call for London and big cities around the world about the importance of good lung health.

When all this is over, I hope to see our political and business leaders make the legislative changes necessary that mean we can track and reduce our pollution levels for the long-term.

Freddie Talberg, CEO and co-founder of Emsol

Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.


Idox Transport solutions enable traffic managers to model, monitor and control the environmental effects of travel as well as reducing congestion to maximise the use of a limited road network, all using UTMC, RTIG, SIRI and other recognised industry protocols. Idox Transport was also funded through the UK Government’s Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial to explore the use of real-time data tools to change driver behaviour, reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.


A message to all subscribers to
The Knowledge Exchange information service

We are open for business and continue to provide current awareness and enquiries services to our clients. If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Guest post: Economic effects of coronavirus lockdowns are staggering – but health recovery must be prioritised

By Pushan Dutt, INSEAD

In all my years as an economist, I have never seen a graph like the one below. It shows unemployment claims in the US – observe the spike for the week ending March 21. The global financial crisis, the dot-com crash, Black Monday, oil price shocks, 9/11, none of these historic shocks are even visible in the graph.

Figures: US Department of Labor

 

The spike in unemployment claims is the proverbial canary in the goldmine. We should expect a swathe of bad economic numbers coming down the pipeline. The head of the St. Louis Fed expects a 30% unemployment rate and a 50% drop in US GDP by summer. More importantly, as the health crisis rises and crests at different times in different parts of the world, the horrifying numbers on GDP growth, unemployment, business closures are not likely to let up in the near term. Multiple countries are in a recession, and eventually, the whole world will fall into a deep recession.

The plunge from prosperity to peril will be as swift as the switch to lockdown protocols in most countries. We cannot even rely on the data we have to reveal the speed and depth of the crisis since this is collected and updated with lags. For instance, the US monthly jobs report for March collects data in the second week of March, failing to capture the massive spike in unemployment claims that appears after March 12.

In the meantime, sources such as restaurant booking website OpenTable can offer some insights into the magnitude of things. The figures below show the recent plummet in diners eating at restaurants in four countries. Observe a sudden stop in the entire restaurant industry by the third week of March.


Annual % change in restaurant diners from end of February to end of March.

Data: OpenTable

 

Combine a black swan event with missing data, and it is not surprising that markets are swinging violently.

Deep freeze

The question is not one of whether we are in a recession – we are. The more pertinent questions are: how long it will last? How deep it will be? Who will be impacted the most? And how swift will the recovery be?

These questions are complicated and even top economists must admit a lack of confidence in their answers. We are not experiencing a standard downturn. Nor is it simply a financial crisis, a currency crisis, a debt crisis, a balance of payment crisis or a supply shock.

We have not seen anything like this since the flu pandemic of 1918. Even there, identifying the effects of the flu is confounded by the first world war that took place at the same time. What we have here is something different. At its heart, we are experiencing a healthcare crisis with various parts of the world succumbing in a staggered fashion.

To slow down this global health crisis (the “flatten the curve” mantra), we have chosen to put the economy into deep freeze temporarily. Production, spending, and incomes will inevitably decline. Decisions to reduce the severity of the epidemic exacerbate the size of the contraction. While the initial decision to reduce labour supply and consumption are voluntary, this will likely be followed by involuntary reductions in both, as businesses are forced to lay off workers or go bankrupt.

Of course, government policies will attempt to mitigate these effects. Some are using traditional monetary and fiscal policies (cutting interest rates, quantitative easing, increasing unemployment insurance, bailouts). Others are trying out non-traditional methods (direct cash transfers, loans to businesses conditional on maintaining unemployment, wage subsidies).

Public health priority

How long the economic impact lasts depends entirely on how long the pandemic lasts. This, in turn, depends on epidemiological variables and health policy choices. But even when the pandemic ends, the resumption of normalcy is likely to be gradual. Countries will persist with a strict containment regime like in China today, and continue to impose travel restrictions to various parts of the world where the disease continues to spread.

The many factors at play in this complex, interlinked crisis that affects both people’s health and the global economy introduces massive uncertainty into anyone hazarding the pace, the depth and the length of the impact. As a result, we should treat any precise estimates (such as “GDP will decline by X%” or “markets have reached their bottom”) with scepticism.

Especially frustrating is the idea that there is a conflict between academic disease modellers and hard-edged economists saying that steps to slow the spread of coronavirus has trade offs. This could not be further from the truth. Among economists there is near unanimity that countries should focus on the healthcare crisis and that tolerating a sharp slowdown in economic activity to arrest the spread of infections is the preferred policy path. In a recent survey carried out by the University of Chicago, respondents universally agreed that you cannot have a healthy economy without healthy people.

The health crisis has naturally created a crisis of confidence. This, in turn, can have damaging long-term effects with continuing uncertainty leading firms and households to postpone investment, production and spending. Restoring confidence requires a singular focus on containing and reversing the spread of COVID-19.

Slowing the rate that people fall ill with COVID-19 is not the end in itself. It is a means to temporarily reduce the pressure on hospitals and give time to identify treatments and a vaccine. In the interim, we must build testing capacity, perform contact tracing, setup the infrastructure for extended quarantines, rapidly expand the production of masks, ventilators and other protection equipment, build and repurpose facilities into hospitals, add intensive care capacity and train, recall and redeploy medical personnel.

All of this is also the way to restore the economy’s health and economic policy must complement it. In the short run, economic policies should mitigate the impact of lockdowns and ensure that the current crisis does not trigger financial, debt or currency crises. It should focus on flattening the recession curve, ensure that the temporary shutdown has only transient effects, and facilitate a quick recovery once the economy is taken out of the deep freeze.

In the meantime, it’s important to also recognise that this is an unprecedented crisis. Everybody has their role to play, but nobody is infallible and uncertainty is inevitable.

Pushan Dutt, Professor of Economics, INSEAD

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


A message to all subscribers to
The Knowledge Exchange information service

We are open for business and continue to provide current awareness and enquiries services to our clients. If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Further education: happy-ever-after for the Cinderella sector?

“It has, I believe, been an old complaint among many concerned with the technical side of education that that part of education has been the Cinderella. Well, the Government is determined that even if there was any truth in that in the past, there shall be none in the future.”

That forthright pledge came, not from a politician in our own times, but from the president of the board of education in 1935. Almost a century later, further education (FE) is still struggling to break away from its position as an overlooked and under-resourced Cinderella sector.

The importance of FE

FE matters in many ways to many people. Through FE, individuals can get a second chance to obtain qualifications, equip themselves for higher education, and improve their employability or chances of promotion, as well as enjoying countless health and wellbeing benefits.  Employers look to FE  to provide a workforce with the skills they need. So many of the services we rely on today depend on people who learned their skills in FE colleges, from car mechanics to care workers, hairdressers to housing managers. Not incidentally, the wider economy benefits from the improved productivity, increased tax-take and knowledge transfer that FE delivers. In spite of all these benefits, FE colleges attract less attention and funding than schools or universities, and their impact is not so widely recognised.

The Cinderella factors

In 2018, researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education identified six key issues affecting FE policy in England:

  • English FE is not defined clearly and stably;
  • the strength and continuity of FE colleges have been undermined by multiple and changing funding sources and funders, frequent government reviews and frequent substantial policy changes;
  • increasing numbers of college lecturers are employed on zero hours contracts;
  • mergers and closures have undermined colleges’ community and employment functions;
  • competition among the multiplicity of private bodies awarding FE qualifications is leading them to make their qualifications easier to attain;
  • cuts in FE funding have greatly weakened colleges, leaving them under-resourced.

The hardest-hit service

As the Ontario study noted, funding is a key factor in the precarious position of FE in the UK, something echoed by further research. An independent review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, reported that in 2018 English universities received £8bn in government funding to support 1.2m undergraduates, while just £2.3bn was allocated for the 2.2m full and part-time students aged over 18 in further education.

A further report, published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies  found that over the last decade further education and skills spending for young people and adults received the largest cuts across all areas of education spending.

The House of Commons Education Committee has also identified FE as the hardest hit part of the education sector:

“Participation in full time further education has more than doubled since the 1980s, yet post-16 budgets have seen the most significant pressures of all education stages. Per student funding fell by 16% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2018–19 – twice as much as the 8% school funding fall over a similar period.”

Witnesses contributing to the Committee’s investigation were in no doubt that FE has been hit harder than other parts of the education sector because it doesn’t have the ear of politicians in the way that schools and universities do. As one contributor put it:

“…there are more votes in schools than colleges.”

Remedies and recommendations

The Augar review observed that there is a powerful case for change in the FE sector, and made a number of recommendations to improve the quality, capability and capacity of England’s FE college network, including:

  • a national network of colleges should be established, with a dedicated capital investment, and the integration of small, local colleges into groups;
  • full funding should be provided for all students participating in study for levels 2 and 3 to remove barriers to social mobility and productivity;
  • the reduction in the core funding rate for 18 year-olds should be reversed;
  • Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) funding rules should be simplified, and government should commit to providing an indicative adult education budget;
  • the government should invest in the FE workforce as a priority;
  • FE colleges should have a protected title, as universities are entitled to.

The Augar recommendation that £3bn should flow to colleges, along with a one-off £1bn capital funding boost for the national network underlines the need for government to take further education seriously. As things stand, FE is still awaiting a definitive government response.

FE in the rest of the UK

Scotland
In Scotland, where FE colleges provide around 71 million hours of learning to over 242,00 students each year, financial pressures are increasing. A 2019 Audit Scotland report noted that Scottish colleges are operating within an increasingly tight financial environment. It reported that 12 colleges were forecasting recurring financial deficits by 2022-23. The report suggested that there is scope for the Scottish Funding Council to work with individual colleges and their boards to improve financial planning and to achieve greater transparency in the sector’s financial position. More recently, research by the principals of Scotland’s two largest colleges reported that FE boosts Scotland’s GDP by £3.5bn a year.

Wales
The 2016 Hazelkorn review made recommendations for post-compulsory education in Wales, including a new Tertiary Education Authority to distribute funding to universities and colleges, and to shape the vision of the post-compulsory sector. The review also recommended that education policy and institutions should be more focused on Wales’ social and economic goals. The Welsh Government has accepted the recommendations.

Northern Ireland
Six regional colleges, operating across 40 campuses, are the main providers of technical and vocational education in Northern Ireland. In 2016, the Northern Ireland Executive reviewed FE, resulting in a strategy with nine themes covering areas such as economic development; social inclusion and delivery. It includes a commitment to, in partnership with the colleges, review the funding model to ensure that it supports and incentivises colleges to deliver the strategy. With the resumption of the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland, the hope is that the government can work with the FE sector to meet the challenges of funding and the needs of the economy.

Cinderella no more?

Further education is the backbone of the UK’s efforts to meet the country’s growing skills gap, and may hold the key to improving productivity and social mobility. But OECD figures show just 37% of men and 34% of women participate in further education (compared to averages of 49% and 44% respectively across other industrialised countries). Clearly, more needs to be done to help FE level up.

Earlier this month, in his first Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed the Conservative Party’s election manifesto commitments for FE, including £1.8bn for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to upgrade college buildings. There are also high hopes that more money will be delivered to FE in the autumn spending review.

The FE sector has welcomed the change in approach. Following the Budget speech, the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said: “Today showed a clear shift in attitude towards technical and vocational education, after a decade of neglect.”

It might still be too soon to forecast a happy ending for the Cinderella sector, but the signs are that FE is coming in from the cold.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Guest post: Three things I’ve learned in my local coffee shop

By Steve MacDouell

If you were to walk into my neighbourhood coffee shop, you’d see the usual suspects: Joey, a body and mind professional, who would be talking to someone about Finnish saunas, metal music, and the human condition; Arielle, the local city councillor, who would be conversing with her constituents about their ideas and hopes for the neighbourhood; Alexis, a writer, who would be sipping an americano, plugging away at her book, and scrolling through funny dog gifs; and Brittney, Jen, and Emily, three friends who, on a weekly basis, come together to talk about the joys and complexities of life all the while trying to keep their pre-school aged children occupied. This coffee shop, like many others, is a place where people are invited to sit, to catch up on some email, and to, potentially, encounter a few of their neighbours — all while enjoying a hot, caffeinated beverage.

Third places — that is, places where people can enjoy the company of others outside of their workplaces and homes — are critical to the well-being of our neighbourhoods. From public parks and libraries to pubs and playgrounds, these places are impacting our localities in both subtle and significant ways. For our communities to thrive, we need third places where ideas can be shared, where everyone is welcome to belong, and where relationships, over time, can be fostered. Ray Oldenburg, urban sociologist and author of The Great Good Place, emphasizes the importance of these kinds of places in this way:

“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life…Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy.”

After a few years of sitting in the same coffee shop, I’ve come to realize that third places have much to teach us about our neighbourhoods and the people we share them with.

In the spirit of celebrating the third places in our cities, here are three things that I’ve learned in my local coffee shop:

People want to linger in places where they can be seen, heard, and known

There is something about your local barista knowing your coffee order that grounds you in a place. It’s one of the small, subtle ways that I started to feel like a character in the story of my neighbourhood. This vague familiarity would go on to spark brief conversations between the staff and I, which led to more robust exchanges around our unique interests, our vocational endeavours, and our shared hopes for the neighbourhood. They began to introduce me to other locals in the shop which led to more conversations and to a broader network of connection. Additionally, the shop is small, so sharing tables with my neighbours became a normal practice. At times, these shared table experiences sparked meaningful interactions, and at other times, it just led to more spilt coffee. As weeks turned into months, strangers became friends, a sense of community started to be formed, and feelings of familiarity began to take root.

It’s often within the relational ecosystem of a local coffee shop that we encounter the people we’ve actually shared close proximity with for a long time. We start to put names to faces that we’ve seen in passing, and we begin to feel a little more noticed ourselves—which taps into our human longing to know others and be known by others. In this sense, coffee shops provide far more than local economic benefits and enjoyable products; they offer a space where trust can be formed — and where hospitality can be extended — between neighbours. While turning up, sipping coffee, and being open to connection seems like a small act, the cumulative impact of doing so can’t be quickly dismissed.

People long for places where contextual ideas—for the common good of the neighbourhood—can be inspired

The collision of humanity that occurs in a local coffee shop has a way of catalyzing ideas that, if leveraged well, can go on to improve the well-being of our neighbourhoods. This occurs, in part, because the individuals who spend time in these places will have some sense of the contextual opportunities that exist locally and because the social nature of a coffee shop can lend itself to a high concentration of neighbourly interactions. Over the years, spending time in my local coffee shop has opened up different collaborate engagements with my neighbours: from cocktail nights, dinner parties, and social clubs to playgroups, TED-style events, and tactical urbanism projects. The seeds of these ideas were planted and cultivated through ongoing conversations over lattes and laptops.

The local impact that can come out of a coffee shop is nothing new; historically, these places have played a key role in shaping the social, political, creative, and intellectual pursuits of cities. Take, for example, the coffeehouses of London in the 1670s. The open, political dialogue that occurred in these places was subversive enough that it caused nervousness in the powers that be, so much so that Charles II tried to have them shut down. If you were looking to be involved in political dialogue during the French Revolution, you could find it in a Parisian café, and if you were an anti-Communist dissident in Prague after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, you could conspire with kindred spirits at Café Slavia. Some, like German sociologist and philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, have even gone on to argue that the coffeehouses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment.

While revolution might not break out in our local coffee shops, these important places still inspire dialogue, ideas, and collaboration, all of which can go on to make a tangible impact on neighbourhoods and cities.

People are attached to the places that they experience with all of their senses

Over the past few years, I’ve taken a number of road trips across the United States. Whenever I’m in a new city, I try to sit in a few local coffee spots to taste their product, to meet a few locals, and to get a sense of what’s happening in the neighbourhood. While I’ve enjoyed some great coffee and met some interesting people along the way, I’ve always felt like a visitor in these places—and this makes sense. The coffee tastes a little different than what I’m used to; the aesthetic, while often similar, is not quite the same as my local coffee shop; and the people are friendly, but I’m not connected to their stories in the same way that I am to those of my neighbours. Visiting these places is always a welcomed experience, but it never quite feels like home.

The hours I’ve spent in my local coffee shop have increased my level of attachment to my neighbourhood and the people who inhabit it—which, over time, has made me less likely to dream of being somewhere else. While I love to travel, being elsewhere has made me more appreciative of the people and the places that are familiar, reminding me of just how much I continue to receive within the ordinary rhythms of life in the places I call home.

Third places play a critical role in the strength, resilience, and interconnectedness of our cities. Whether your third place is a coffee shop, a community centre, or a local McDonald’s, spending time in these places can move us toward the people, the stories, and the opportunities that exist all around us. While these places will not solve all of the urgent problems that our cities face, the tangible benefits that they offer our communities should be celebrated.


Steve MacDouell is a professor at @FanshaweCollege in London, Ontario, and a senior community fellow at @TheGoodCityCo, a civic organisation that creates projects to help citizens take greater ownership over the places they call home. Steve also writes posts on community formation, place and neighbourliness. This post originally appeared on Steve’s own blog.

Guest post: The 2035 petrol, diesel and hybrid ban – what it means and how we get there

The government has announced they will ban the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles from 2035, bringing forward the original date by five years. In this guest blog, Ian Johnston, CEO of EV charging network, Engenie, discusses the challenges and opportunities that this target will bring.

Since 2017, when a ban on petrol and diesel cars was first introduced by the UK government, there has been growing calls for the policy to have more ambition. Those calls were answered when the government brought forward its ban.

On Tuesday February 4 the government, having resisted calls for more stringent anti-ICE (internal combustion engine) polices for three years, brought its ban forward from 2040 to 2035.

The move was announced almost a year after the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) formally advised that the ban be brought forward to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and just weeks after an election dominated by an environmental policy arms race between rival parties competing for the ever-growing climate-conscious vote. This meant that the change of date, as radical as it was, wasn’t wholly unexpected. The real surprise? Hybrids.

The decision to include hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) in the ban came as quite a shock to many in the industry, not least for those who had, as recently as late 2018, been offered generous subsidies for these alternatives to dedicated ICE vehicles.

However, considering a series of studies reported that PHEVs could actually be emitting more CO2 than equivalent petrol-only cars due to extra battery weight, it seems to be a policy that has considered the real impact of hybrids and the scale of change needed for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Hybrids have played an important role by getting drivers used to electric motoring but with pure electric vehicles (EVs) approaching cost parity and achieving longer range, they are no longer needed as much as they once were.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the CCC, also pointed out that cars are typically on UK roads for 14 years, meaning a ban – inclusive of these polluting hybrids – must happen by 2035 in order to get them off the road in time for Net Zero by 2050.

2035 – what does it mean and how do we get there?

Despite being welcomed by environmentalists and authoritative organisations such as the CCC, a number of motoring groups and manufacturers have described the move as ‘a date without a policy’.

So, we have a date to focus our minds but what do we need to do to get there? Perhaps the most prominent criticism levelled at the new policy is that public charging infrastructure is not yet ready to cope with mass electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

However, this is far from the truth. The private sector has done a great job of developing a huge number of public-access EV chargers in populated areas. In fact, as of last year, there are more public-access EV charging points than petrol stations.

The industry is also rising to the challenge of creating a truly open-access network to give drivers the best possible experience. Regulation, due to come into force this spring, is primed to enshrine this interoperability between charging networks in law.

Yet an issue remains. While the more commercially viable areas of the country which benefit from higher customer demand – shopping centres, retail parks, supermarkets, car parks etc. – have been well served by the private sector, other, more rural, areas of the country with less customer demand naturally deliver less return on investment and are therefore less likely to attract private investment.

The result is under-developed infrastructure in these areas. This is where the government can give real substance to its new target. By offering direct support to these areas, in particular, we can ensure that the rollout of chargers is a strategically managed programme, aimed at enabling mass EV adoption in all areas of the UK.

The idea that there are virtually no public charging points to cater for EV owners is just one misconception that plagues the country’s efforts to develop an established EV market. That’s why a sustained effort to educate the general public on EVs is needed.

If the government is committed to achieving its 2035 target, it must take responsibility for dispelling myths – i.e. lack of charging points, misconceptions about charging behaviour, range anxiety etc. – and educating on benefits i.e. the ease of home charging, lower fuels costs, zero emissions, minimal maintenance and superior driving experience.

Supply and demand

Finally, and perhaps most frustratingly for early adopters of EVs, there is the issue of EV supply. There’s no doubt that demand for EVs is skyrocketing. In fact, the market for EVs is set to expand from 3.4% of all vehicles sold in 2019 to 5.5% in 2020. Despite this, drivers are often discouraged by long waiting times for new vehicles – something that’s severely inhibiting the growth of this burgeoning market.

To tackle this issue, and thus help meet the 2035 target, the UK must cultivate an attractive trading environment for EV suppliers. One effective way to do this is to encourage OEM investment in UK-based supply chains – namely battery Gigafactories.

This will keep costs down for OEMs by shortening supply chains for the UK market and make a compelling case for them to prioritise UK EV deliveries over other countries.

The 2035 target is no mean feat and we have certainly planted an ambitious stake in the ground. The industry has already done much of the hard work but only by continuing to implement meaningful actions and gaining government support in key areas can we give the new target real substance and credibility.


Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.

Further reading: more blog posts on electric vehicles

Whither wind power?

The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in the UK’s energy supply. In 2010, almost three quarters of Britain’s electricity was generated by fossil fuels. But in the third quarter of 2019, renewables outpaced coal, oil and gas for the first time since Britain’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882.

As Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK has observed, the transformation of the UK’s electricity supply has been extraordinary:

“We’re in the middle of basically an industrial revolution. If you look back 10 years ago when we thought about renewables, we only thought about them as this kind of niche climate change technology and now they’re the backbone of the energy system.”

More megawatts: the growth of wind power

Increases in turbine capacity, hub height and rotor diameter, and sharp reductions in the costs of constructing and operating wind power facilities have helped to grow the UK’s wind power sector. The current generation of offshore turbines are taller than the London Eye (195m), generating 8-9 megawatts of power. But wind power operators are already planning 300m turbines, with a capacity to generate between 10-15 megawatts. Another innovation has been the development of floating turbines, which can be placed in deeper waters where the wind is stronger and less variable. The world’s first floating wind farm was opened off the coast of Scotland in 2017.

Offshore wind: “a major game changer”

An additional factor driving the growth of wind power is government support. The UK government has provided competitive subsidies to the offshore wind sector, with further help pledged in the 2019 Offshore Wind Sector Deal

The UK is now the world’s biggest offshore wind market. In the past two years, supersize wind farms have opened off the coasts of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Caithness. Another wind farm will become operational in 2020, while work has already started on what will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm, capable of powering 4.5 million homes.

While the UK, along with Germany and Denmark, has been leading the development of offshore wind power, other countries are catching up fast. In 2018, China installed more new offshore wind power schemes than any country in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) offshore wind provides just 0.3% of global power generation. But by 2040 wind could be the single biggest source of power generation in Europe. Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA is in no doubt about the future of onshore wind power, telling the Financial Times last year: “It has the potential to be a major game-changer.”

Onshore wind: a sector becalmed

For onshore wind it’s a different story. In April 2016, the UK government ended new subsidies for onshore wind schemes, pointing to growing public opposition. In addition, changes to planning regulations have made it harder to develop new onshore wind schemes. As a result, new capacity in onshore wind has slowed markedly.

The UK onshore wind sector has argued strongly in favour of lifting the ban on subsidies, pointing to the economic benefits of onshore wind and its capacity to replace lost resources. In January 2019, when Hitachi abandoned plans to build a nuclear plant in Wales, the onshore wind industry highlighted 794 projects that have won planning consent and are ready to build. Industry representatives claim that together these projects would generate two thirds of what the Hitachi plant would have produced.

While onshore development in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has lost pace, continuing support from the Scottish Government for onshore wind power means there is a current pipeline of 26 projects in Scotland.

Elsewhere in the world, onshore wind power is strong in Sweden, Denmark and China, but in Germany there is growing opposition to onshore schemes.

Skills and jobs

In 2019, the UK adopted a net zero carbon emission target, bringing all greenhouse gas emissions — excluding aviation and international shipping — to virtually zero by 2050. Achieving this will require profound changes, not least in terms of power generation. This in turn means recruiting the right people with the right skills.

Last month, a report published by the National Grid forecast that the UK’s energy sector will need to recruit several hundred thousand workers in order to deliver net zero emissions by 2050. The report found that in the north west of England alone, over 60,000 jobs will need to be filled to meet the demands of offshore wind expansion, while the continued growth of on-shore and offshore wind power in Scotland will drive the need for almost 50,000 jobs by 2050.

Final thoughts

Wind power is not without its critics. Some commentators have expressed doubts about its contribution to world energy supply, and warned of its environmental impacts. But it seems that a critical turning point has been reached. Wind now accounts for 20% of UK electricity generation, making it the country’s strongest source of renewable energy.

The trend is set to continue, certainly regarding offshore wind power. And even onshore wind schemes may be set for a comeback, with signs that public support for this cheap and clean form of electricity generation has never been greater.

Is this the future of social housing?

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

Last year, a development of 105 homes on the outskirts of Norwich became the first social housing project to win the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize.

The Goldsmith Street estate was built by London architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council, and is the largest Passivhaus scheme in the UK. Passivhaus is an approach to building that provides a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Goldsmith Street has been carefully thought through, and adjusted to take account of changing economic and environmental circumstances. In 2008, Norwich City Council selected Mikhail Riches to design the estate. The council had intended to sell the site to a local housing provider, but when the financial crash happened, the council decided to develop the site itself.

The architects have striven to ensure that the development acknowledges the historic context of the site:

“The design seeks to re-introduce streets and houses in an area of the city which is otherwise dominated by 20th century blocks of flats… Street widths are intentionally narrow at 14m, emulating the 19th century model.”

The homes themselves have been built to strict Passivhaus standards which include:

  • very high levels of insulation;
  • extremely high performance windows with insulated frames;
  • airtight building fabric;
  • ‘thermal bridge free’ construction;
  • a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Passivhaus standards typically reduce heating energy consumption by up to 90% as compared to traditional housing. For residents in the Goldsmith Street development, heating bills should be about £150 a year.

Eco friendly housing

In recent years, local authorities and housing associations have been responding to the increasing demands for housing stock to have lower maintenance costs, lower energy costs and fewer emissions of carbon and other gases that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The Passivhaus Trust has highlighted a growing number of local councils and housing associations that have been exploring Passivhaus standards as a way of tackling these issues.

One of the most ambitious social housing Passivhaus projects is Agar Grove in the London Borough of Camden. Previously a 1960s estate with an unenviable reputation, Agar Grove has been rebuilt with affordable and energy efficient homes. The first phase, involving 38 social rented homes was completed in 2018, and has already won awards for sustainability and community consultation. Once complete, the 500-home estate will be the largest Passivhaus development in the UK.

Cunningham House, Glasgow: Page\Park Architects

In Glasgow, the city’s first Passivhaus development for social rent was opened by Shettleston Housing Association in September 2019. The project provides nineteen new homes for older people in an innovative design that combines a five storey Passivhaus tower with a converted church building. All of the homes benefit from high levels of thermal insulation to augment the sandstone coat of the existing church structure. The project was named the best affordable housing development at the 2019 Inside Housing Awards.

Meanwhile, the City of York Council has released plans to build more than 600 homes across eight sites over the next five years that will be built to carbon zero standards. The council has pledged that 40% of the homes will be affordable, with 20% retained for social renting. The developments, also designed by Mikhail Riches, will have very high energy efficiency standards that exceed standard Passivhaus levels. It’s predicted that residents’ heating bills could be around £60 a year.

Homes for the future

There is a now a growing sense that housing, as well as consuming great amounts of energy, can also be a positive force for change. Energy efficient homes can make a strong contribution to climate change adaptation measures, can make housing more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and can provide opportunities to improve economic development, quality of life and social equality.

In the past year, with many local councils, combined authorities, devolved administrations and the UK government declaring ‘climate emergencies’, the pressure on housing providers to lead by example has intensified. At the same time, governments are setting out plans to ensure new homes are more energy efficient.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the Future Homes Standard, which includes proposals to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2025. Similarly, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new regulations to ensure all new homes use renewable or low carbon heating from 2024. A 2019 report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended major changes to most homes in the country, including a major programme to improve insulation and heating.

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

The success and widespread publicity enjoyed by the Goldsmith Street project is likely to encourage other local authorities and housing associations to explore the possibilities of Passivhaus. But although the benefits are great, Passivhaus also presents significant challenges for housing providers.

Up-front costs are higher for Passivhaus developments, and there are additional maintenance and replacement costs. The technical requirements are strict, in order to ensure the maximum levels of airtightness and insulation. In addition, there is a shortage of skills needed to achieve the exceptional standards of construction demanded by Passivhaus (Norwich City Council has overcome this by bringing together a network of specialist contractors with the necessary expertise to work on Passivhaus projects).

Despite the challenges, Passivhaus seems to be offering a compelling answer to the significant problems of fuel poverty, climate change and the demand for high quality, affordable housing. As more local authorities and housing associations demonstrate its affordability, Passivhaus is breaking away from its image as a resource for the privileged and moving into the mainstream of social housing.


Further reading: blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on energy efficiency at home

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.