Access denied: planning for the disabled-access city

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that over 1 billion people are living with some form of disability worldwide – that’s about 15% of the world’s total population. And, with trends in life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic health conditions on the rise, the number of disabled people living in cities is expected to only increase in the coming years.

Despite this, many cities remain unfriendly and widely inaccessible to their disabled populations.

Those with physical disabilities can be presented with barriers built into the smallest details of manoeuvring around the city, which could be seen as trivial and unobtrusive to the average able-bodied commuter.

From impassable steep kerbs, to sandwich board-cluttered streets, to shops and restaurants without lifts- – the makeup of the typical streetscape is lined with potential obstacles and restrictions. Moreover, for people who are neurodivergent or learning disabled, a bustling urban environment can cause harm through sensory overload, anxiety and stress.

Transport is another everyday aspect of city living where disabled people can feel excluded.

In many big cities, the metro is the most convenient way to travel. A recent study found that only 31% of London Underground stations are accessible by wheelchair or mobility scooter from street to platform. Considering that a number of those still require staff assistance and ramps to board trains, the number of fully accessible stations is even less. Another study found that similarly poor access exists across the world’s major metro systems.

Disabled people commonly report that accessibility worries can be a major deterrent to engaging in public spaces that are unfamiliar.

“I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my head” says Grace, in a Guardian article where readers with a disability share their experiences of city access. “The barriers start before a trip begins” adds Stef, talking about autistic-unfriendly travel.

Discussing New York, Lucy describes how accessibility barriers can make her feel excluded in her own city: “I often end up feeling like a second-class citizen who doesn’t even appear in the thoughts of city planners”.

Numerous studies have found that disabled people are less likely to work or socialise in areas with poor accessibility. Moreover, cities are losing out on economic benefits from inaccessibility-– the ‘purple pound’ (signifying the spending power of disabled tourists) was estimated to be worth around £250bn in the UK pre-pandemic.

Whilst disabled access is rising in prioritisation amongst city and transport planning, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go in many cities. But there are also some good examples of cities taking action to make their spaces accessible to all.

Opening up Chester’s ancient streets

The first British city to win the coveted European Access City Award, Chester is now regarded as the UK’s most accessible city. Famous for its Roman heritage, the city pledged to make its many tourist sites fully accessible for disabled people–a sizeable challenge, considering the city’s ancient streets and medieval walls.

Chester has implemented fully accessible, wide passageways with tactile paving and added handrails above the walls and famous Chester Rows, which were previously only accessible by steps. Narrow and secluded walkways have now been connected by 17 wheelchair access points. In addition, there are disabled access focused tours, access guides, signs and online information platforms.

Transport has been revamped, as council policy requires all public buses and licensed taxis to have wheelchair access, induction loops and colour-contrast handles. The council has also committed to including a specifically designed Changing Places toilet in all new developments, adding to the numerous facilities already deployed in busy spots.

The successful implementation of an extensive access plan has not been quick, but is rather the results of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s long-term commitment to improving disability inclusion. The council has had a designated access officer since 1991 and a disability forum of 16 organisations that actively promote accessibility in new developments – such as the multi-million pound Storyhouse arts centre that has received accolades for its standard of access.

Chester’s award has seen the city become a model to other city governments from across the world, who are now visiting the city for inspiration. “We’ve had them from Dublin to Israel, they want to see how it’s done”, says Graham Garnett, Chester’s previous access officer.

Accessible route mapping in Seattle

Primarily designed for commuters in vehicles, most online routing maps can be unhelpful for people with limited mobility, lacking detail on hills, steep kerbs and access points. Aiming to rectify this, however, is the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, who have designed the AccessMap platform for the hilly city of Seattle.

AccessMap allows users to receive tailored routes dependent on customised preferences, such as only showing sloped pavements or limiting the incline of streets. As platforms such as Google Maps currently don’t take such factors into account, AccessMap will provide the user with an alternative route that is not based upon journey time or distance, but rather on safety and ease of access.

The map even uses recent data from the Seattle Department of Transportation to accommodate for real-world conditions on pedestrian pathways, such as a construction site or potentially hazardous surface conditions. In addition, the developers are aiming to turn the platform into an open street map, where users and volunteers can create up-to-date entries about the conditions they encounter.

The research team behind the project want to use their development to provide the toolkits and instructions to create similar maps in other cities. They have identified 10 urban areas in the US with the potential to replicate successful platforms, such as New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Final thoughts

Chester’s motivation in becoming fully accessible is exemplary of a city that is leading the way in disability inclusion, ensuring that it is inherent to city government planning. Likewise, the mapping project in Seattle shows how alternative tools can enhance the experiences of disabled people.

But although these examples are encouraging, they are exceptions. As long as planners fail to acknowledge the needs of people with disabilities, most of our cities will remain, in effect, no-go areas for a substantial section of society.


Further reading: more on diversity and inclusion from The Knowledge Exchange Blog:

Could recent backlash crash the not-so-smart city?

In May 2020, Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs abruptly cancelled its smart city vision for Toronto’s waterfront, citing that “unprecedented economic uncertainty” created by the pandemic had made the project unachievable.

Named ‘Quayside’, the venture proposed a 12-acre development of sleek apartments and neighbourhood amenities that heavily incorporated data and technology into urban design and residents’ daily living.

Including an underground delivery system and ice-melting heated roads, the futuristic plan aimed to turn Toronto into the world’s first truly ‘smart city’.

Yet, the Quayside development faced fierce criticism before it could even get underway.

Planned for the heart of the development was the harvesting of an extensive flow of data, amassed by studying millions of residents’ daily movements through sensor-laden streets and buildings.

However, critics saw a darker side to Sidewalk Labs, fearing that residents’ data would be stored and used by Google. Such fears only intensified after a series of publicised data breaches at Big Tech companies.

US businessman Roger McNamee described the project as “the most highly evolved version to date of surveillance capitalism”, warning that Google would use “algorithms to nudge human behaviour” for corporate interests.

Despite Sidewalk’s assurances that the data collected wouldn’t be shared with third parties, Toronto city council members began to voice official concerns. A National Research Council report stated that Canada was in danger of becoming a “data cow” for foreign tech companies.

After years of a controversial public debacle that played out in court rooms and street protests, the proposals were eventually abandoned altogether.

An industry slowing down

The story of Quayside’s defeat perhaps has greater implications for the future of smart city culture. Toronto has coincided with numerous high-profile examples of downscaling in grand smart city projects across the world, such as Songdo in South Korea and the ill-famed Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, the overall trend of the smart city sector is declining, as the regions with the most smart-city deployments have seen large drop-offs in new developments. For instance, the number of new projects in Europe increased year-on-year to a peak of 43 in 2016- yet fell to just 17 in 2020.

Likewise, data suggests that the major suppliers to government smart city projects have considerably weakened their influence on the sector. Since 2016, companies such as Cisco Systems, Vodafone and Telensa have greatly reduced the number of new developments that they are undertaking, whilst there are numerous examples of backtracking throughout the industry.

In late 2020, Cisco Systems announced that the company was scrapping its flagship smart-city software altogether. Such instances suggest at least a slowing down in production ventures or perhaps even a full-on shift in company priorities.

So, why is the smart city bandwagon beginning to falter?

Not ‘smart’ enough post-pandemic?

Whilst the privacy backlash movement that finished off Quayside is exemplary of existing privacy concerns before Covid-19, the pandemic may have further compounded the barriers faced by the smart city.

The hard-hitting financial implications and uncertainties created by the pandemic have presumably put ambitious smart city projects on the back burner, as city governments re-align their priorities towards economic recovery.

They’ve [smart city technology providers] all seen the challenges and the opportunities in this pandemic moment, says Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic-innovation research lab in Boston. “I think they are still struggling and looking at their product portfolio and looking to see what value they can add. I do think the field has shifted.“

Jacob suggests that the pre-Covid landscape of smart city promotion has ultimately shifted, a viewpoint that is echoed throughout the industry. Many believe that the pandemic has forced city governments and citizens to re-evaluate their priorities of what needs to be achieved through urban areas.

David Bicknell, principal thematic analyst for GlobalData, arguesSmart cities had their time. They are no longer about glossy, sensor-driven metropolises.“  He adds, “The impact of the pandemic and climate change now means smart cities cannot just be ‘smart’ – they must be resilient and sustainable, too.”

It could be argued that there is now a greater focus for citizens in creating tangible outcomes in their communities on the key issues of climate change, health and social equity.

Whilst the potential for technology to contribute to driving change in these areas is undoubted, the idea that a smart city business model should just be about the city getting smarter is difficult to uphold in the landscape of post-pandemic finances.

With the exception of climate change issues, the traditional smart city does not look to tackle the big issues that have really been reinforced by the pandemic, Jacob argues.

Privacy concerns here to stay

The pandemic also introduced a new array of concerns surrounding data collection. Contact tracing apps, biometric vaccine passports and temperature scanning as a condition to entering premises have added fuel to the fire of privacy issues that people are now encountering.

Added to this, some academics worry that whilst these technologies have been accepted into day-to-day life under unprecedented measures, it leaves open the possibility of such platforms being manipulated for more sinister purposes in the future.

And, with the numerous high profile legal cases surrounding Facebook, Amazon and Google’s privacy policies now regular features in the media, the public is certainly more aware in its understanding of privacy issues since the Quayside story.

Final Thoughts

Despite how strongly opposed many residents were to the Toronto Quayside development, it is clear that the integration of sensors, scanners and cameras into city living is here to stay. And there are undoubted benefits of smart technologies that are already evident in cities throughout the world- from intelligent LED street lighting to data-driven traffic control systems.

However, for the potential of smart technologies to be truly realised and accepted by the public, the smart city must be re-aligned to fit the privacy conscious post-pandemic world.


Further reading: more about smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Regaining momentum: can Mobility-as-a-Service get back on the road?

When we last wrote about it in 2019, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) appeared to be on the threshold of transforming the way we get around. An innovative MaaS project had already taken off in Finland, and pilot projects in Sweden and the UK were trialling the advantages of bundling together different transport modes into a single service.

But more recently, some of the high hopes behind MaaS appear to have faded, with some questioning whether the concept needs a reboot.

The benefits of MaaS

The big idea behind MaaS is that anyone can use their mobile device to plan, manage and pay for a journey, selecting from a menu of transport options – such as buses, trains, ride-hailing and bike sharing services.

For passengers, MaaS promises greater freedom of choice. In addition, MaaS has the potential to help support government policy objectives, such as promoting active lifestyles, reducing traffic congestion and improving the air quality of our cities. For transport providers, MaaS could generate new business and cost savings. Research published in 2020 found that transport-related energy consumption can be reduced by up to 25% by allowing travellers unbiased choice of mode of transport for each trip.

Putting the brakes on MaaS

In spite of its appealing possibilities, the momentum driving MaaS seems to have stalled. Reluctance by drivers to give up their cars, the contractual and technical complexity of combining multiple transport modes into one service, and the challenge of getting private companies and public services to work together have all hindered the development of MaaS.

In Finland, once the shining example of MaaS in practice, the operation of the platform has been overshadowed by a conflict over ticketing apps between the country’s leading MaaS provider and Helsinki’s local transport authority. Elsewhere, private sector-led MaaS initiatives have run into financial difficulties.

Debunking the myths about MaaS

Despite these setbacks, MaaS still has its champions. Last month, in a webinar hosted by Intelligent Transport, Sohejl Wanjani and Ulrich Lange from German technology firm Siemens responded to some of the arguments that are often put forward against public transport authorities developing MaaS solutions.

A new platform requires a new app
While it’s possible to build a new app solely for MaaS functions, existing apps can be expanded, meaning users don’t have to have multiple accounts and payment methods.

Building a new MaaS project is too big for us
Two options are open to providers: start with one service provider, offering a fully integrated service (planning, booking and paying for trips within the MaaS app) and later add additional service providers; alternatively, start with several service providers, and offer only planning and booking, but not payment.

Most users rely on Google Maps. We can’t do better than that
The key to a successful MaaS system is data, and transport authorities are rich in data about usage of their services. MaaS systems can use real time data that Google does not have, and can integrate ticketing and booking for all modes of transport. In addition, transport authorities can generate income from their own datasets, adapted to local circumstances. Once passengers are assured of the integrity and quality of the data, they are more likely to use the service.

A good example of this is Denmark’s Rejseplanen. This nationwide mobility platform was launched in 2007, and has since achieved more than 5 million downloads. In Denmark, this app is used more frequently than Google Maps, and its extensive data set continues to drive its popularity. Today, Rejseplanen includes information not only for rail, bus and metro services, but also cycle hire and even domestic air services.

Upgrading to a MaaS platform is not financially viable
As cities introduce measures to reduce traffic congestion, it should now be clear that the need to tackle climate change is driving a shift away from private vehicle use to shared modes of transport that are healthier for people and for the planet. MaaS can contribute to climate-friendly travel, while helping transport providers achieve their strategic goals – generating additional revenue streams, increasing passenger usage and creating new mobility services.

Last year, Renfe, the national railway company of Spain, signed a contract with Siemens to develop a nationwide MaaS platform that will allow users to plan, book and pay for trips in a single application. The system will integrate different modes of shared and public transport, such as train, bicycle, metro, bus, car sharing, and scooter services. Renfe clearly sees MaaS as a viable concern; it expects the new service to generate a 4% increase in train travel, 650,000 new customers, and €156m in additional revenue.

MaaS on the move

MaaS is by no means a lost cause. Last month, a research study estimated that the worldwide market for MaaS would grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 36.8% over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s Jelbi service is currently the world’s largest MaaS solution, bringing together public transport, bike sharing, e-scooter, taxis and ridesharing services, as well as offering 12 “Jelbi Stations” where users can rent, return and recharge a range of different vehicles.

Last year, Pittsburgh’s mayor unveiled its own MaaS programme. Move PGH is a partnership between the city’s public transport authority and an assortment of carpooling, car rental, e-scooter and bike sharing enterprises.

Final thoughts

MaaS is still in its infancy, and it’s too early to be sure of its future direction. While its proponents present a seductive vision of car-free cities, cleaner air, clearer streets and almost unlimited choices for passengers, the reality may be very different.

A 2020 study questioned the assumptions surrounding MaaS, and argued that, while MaaS has strong potential for increased mobility, there are also “…unanticipated societal implications that could arise from a wholesale adoption of MaaS in relation to key issues such as wellbeing, emissions and social inclusion.”

With MaaS at a crossroads, it will be worth revisiting this issue to assess its progress.

Further reading: more on travel and transport from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Transport – Idox

Idox’s transport solutions support traffic management and the delivery of real-time passenger information across all modes of transport. Through the use of new digital technology, we help traffic managers and local transport authorities to harness data and inform the design of smart transport systems that ease congestion on existing networks. Further information here

NPF4: a new prioritisation of the environment through planning?

The Scottish Government published the fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) draft for consultation on the 10th November 2021. Titled ‘Scotland 2045’, the eagerly awaited document outlines Scotland’s strategic approach to planning and land use to 2045, coinciding with the government’s ambitious target of transitioning towards a net-zero society by the same year. Now combined with the Local Development Plans (LDPs), it is a critical publication that will inform future planning proposals for Scotland over the next quarter of a century.

A plan of four parts

NPF4 is an extensive planning framework and it is impossible to fully review the 130 page document in a short post. However, it is made up of four key parts:

  • A National Spatial Strategy which sets out the four fundamental overarching themes which future development will aim to reflect and achieve. This is a vision for the creation of sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places.
  • 18 National Developments of ‘national importance’ that are proposed to support the delivery of the spatial strategy across the country. These include developments such as a Central Scotland Green Network, Urban Mass/Rapid Transit Network and Island Hubs for Net-Zero
  • 35 National Planning Policies for development and land use to be applied in the preparation of development plans, local place plans and development briefs; and for the determination of planning consents.
  • Delivering the Spatial Strategy through key delivery mechanisms such as aligning resources to targeting investment and an infrastructure first approach.

What does NPF4 include on climate change?

The transition towards a net-zero society through sustainable development is a cornerstone of the draft NPF4. In fact, the wider issues of climate change, decarbonisation, biodiversity loss and nature-based solutions are firmly rooted throughout many of the strategy’s policies.

Policy 2 is dedicated to climate change. It lays out a new requirement for all development proposals to give significant weight to the Global Climate Emergency as planning authorities are to carefully consider every development’s future implications for the climate.

It states that all developments should be designed to minimise emissions in alignment with the national decarbonisation targets and that proposals that do generate significant emissions should not be supported, unless the applicant provides evidence that the level of emissions is the minimum that can be achieved.

Tom Arthur, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, has highlighted the requirement of giving ‘significant weight’ to climate emissions as a crucial feature within the framework for facilitating future sustainable development.

There is an undoubted sense of prioritisation of the climate emergency within the draft NPF4, as well as recognition of the planning authorities’ role in reducing emissions that was not so evident in previous iterations.

However, the draft concept of ‘significant weight’ remains a loose term that could become open to uncertainty – especially with the wide variety of developments it will apply to in practice. Despite the draft NPF4 illustrating that evidence of minimum emissions is required in certain instances – such as carbon intensive proposals – it remains unclear what this translates to in more typical housing developments, for example.

A host of other policies are also relevant to climate. Policy 19 on green energy states that local development plans should “ensure that an area’s full potential for electricity and heat from renewable sources is achieved”, whilst all forms of renewable energy and low-carbon solutions should also be supported. This includes support for the extension and creation of new wind farms.

Another marked difference from previous iterations of the NPF is the inclusion of ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’ as a viable approach to low-carbon urban living. A key principle of Policy 7 on local living, it is mentioned 18 times throughout NPF4 – making it one of the most prominently used phrases in the document.

Nature and biodiversity loss

As well as acknowledging the climate emergency, the draft NPF4 is clear in its identification of a ‘nature crisis’ in Scotland that is being aggravated by urbanisation:

“Our approach to planning and development will also play a critical role in supporting nature restoration and recovery. Global declines in biodiversity are mirrored here in Scotland with urbanisation recognised as a key pressure. We will need to invest in nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change whilst also addressing biodiversity loss, so we can safeguard the natural systems on which our economy, health and wellbeing depend.“

Policy 3 is dedicated to promoting nature recovery, and again there is a heightened focus on this issue now compared to previous strategies. It states that development proposals should “facilitate biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration“, whilst the potential adverse impacts of development should be minimised as a priority.

Likewise, major development proposals or those where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is needed should only be approved where it is concluded that the proposal “will conserve and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks within and adjacent to the site, so that they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention”.

Further areas of importance with regard to nature preservation include the use of ‘nature-based solutions’, which is used in accordance with the spatial strategies, several of the national developments and planning policies.

In some instances, specific examples of nature-based solutions are provided – such as the impressive Central Scotland Green Network national development, which includes a nature-network approach to water management with sustainable drainage solutions in Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, it could be argued that the draft lacks an abundance of smaller scale examples of nature-based solutions, in the practicalities of more routine planning developments.

Moreover, Policy 33 on soils aims to give peatlands greater protection and restoration. The draft states that development upon peatland and carbon rich soils should not be supported unless for meeting essential criteria, whilst “local development plans should actively protect locally, regionally, nationally and internationally valued soils“.

What’s next for NPF4?

The consultation period for NPF4 is well underway, with the Scottish Government inviting feedback and scrutiny on the document until 31st March 2022. The draft is subject to several parliamentary committees engaging with planning stakeholders and the general public.

Committees are encouraging demographic groups who do not typically engage with planning matters – such as young people and the elderly – to take part in NPF4, underlining the desire for more inclusive involvement in planning decision-making.

Following the declaration of a national climate emergency, the announcement of world-leading decarbonisation targets and the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow last November, NPF4 certainly provides a starting vision for how environmental targets will translate into action through planning.


Further reading: more on planning and the environment from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

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Geographical Information Systems: mapping our ever-changing world

Location data in today’s economy is as important as coal and iron were during the industrial revolution. Using location data – information about the location and movement of people collected from mobile and wearable devices – the essential relationships between geography and consumer experiences, products and services can be identified. This can open up many new business opportunities.

So it’s not surprising that geographical information systems (GIS) – the technology that helps visualise and interrogate location data is experiencing rapid growth. It’s estimated that the UK market for location information products and services is over £2,000 million, while the global market size for GIS is expected to reach $25.6 billion by 2030. Recognising this trend, Idox (the parent company of The Knowledge Exchange) recently acquired two GIS businesses: thinkWhere and exeGesIS Spatial Data Management Ltd.

The power of GIS

As the name suggests, geography is at the heart of GIS. From variations in our landscape to changes in our climate, covering areas of life as varied as crime, health and pollution, GIS can help visualise trends that affect all of us. GIS can also help us to adapt to our ever-changing world. For example, GIS maps that display which areas are prone to flooding can be invaluable when planning new housing developments.

Some of the factors driving the increasing application of GIS include its use in urban planning, disaster management, transport management and the development of smart cities. The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated the rapid growth of GIS. Governments around the world have adopted the technology to map the spread of the disease and evaluate measures to limit its advance.

GIS in action

Idox’s two new acquisitions have considerable experience of real-world GIS applications.

Working with land and property information firm Millar & Bryce, thinkWhere developed a customised version of its flagship groundMapper platform. The solution enabled Millar & Bryce to bundle all documentation pertinent to a project and publish it to a web viewer, reducing a one week process to 48 hours. Because they can make more informed decisions faster, Millar & Bryce have now made groundMapper the centerpiece of its new Site Assembly Solutions service, giving the company a distinctive selling point in a competitive market for land referencing.

thinkWhere has also applied its expertise to help Bucchleuch Estates easily capture, maintain and communicate their land and property assets and associated information such as documents, photos, drawings and reports. And when constructing a new bypass around the city of Aberdeen, Balfour Beatty was significantly helped by thinkWhere, which provided universal access to mapping and environmental data for all stakeholders — not just on the construction side, but also in legal firms, the government and transport authorities.

Similarly, exeGesIS has developed a strong reputation for its range of GIS focused software products, particularly in the field of environmental data.  Among its success stories, exeGesIS has built a web platform for the National Street Gazetteer, which provides essential information for local government, highway authorities and contractors on more than a million streets in England and Wales. The company has also developed a GIS to help local authorities in Scotland monitor litter and fly-tipping incidents, and worked with JNCC – which advises government on nature conservation – to create a new mapping system to display marine spatial data. In addition, exeGesIS  has worked with numerous local authorities, universities and charities to help them visualise and interrogate important information in interactive and imaginative ways.

Dynamic data for an ever-changing world

By uncovering patterns and relationships, GIS is providing organisations in almost every field of activity with the support to gain deeper insight into data, solve complex problems and make smarter decisions. Both thinkwhere and exeGesIS will continue helping to explain how our world works, and identifying ways to make it work better.

Image: thinkwhere


Further reading: more on digital technologies from The Knowledge Exchange blog

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

Digital carbon footprint: the environmental impact of digital transformation

In recent decades, digital technology has revolutionised nearly all aspects of our lives, transforming the ways in which we work, communicate, travel, listen, watch, and play. For governments and policy makers, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the worsening climate emergency, connectivity and technological innovation have quickly become central to sustainable development, and the digital economy has brought great opportunities in tackling the climate crisis and working towards net-zero.

Digital transformation has improved efficiency and productivity across all sectors, and helped to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, transport, planning, building, waste management, and public services. However, our use of digital technology comes with its own energy cost, and as the world becomes increasingly reliant upon the internet and connected devices, it is important to acknowledge and manage the environmental impact.

The carbon footprint of ICT

It is estimated that there are currently around 4.66 billion active internet users globally, and as population and connectivity grows, this figure is increasing rapidly.

While it is easy to think of the internet and the digital world as an abstract and intangible space, the infrastructure that supports it is very much physical and comes with significant environmental and spatial demands. A huge amount of energy is required to power data centres and servers and to build and maintain transmission networks, and most of this energy currently comes from fossil fuels.

The manufacturing, shipping, and powering of digital devices also consumes a vast amount of energy, and the mining and extracting of the raw materials used to make them has a direct impact on land quality and biodiversity.

The use of digital communication channels and social media also has a significant carbon footprint. It is estimated that sending one email emits around 4g of CO2, and that in a typical year for a user of a business email account, around 135kg of CO2 is emitted as a result of incoming mail.

The average internet user is expected to spend around 2.5 hours per day on social media, which is thought to be the equivalent of driving around 0.9 miles in a car, and over the course of a year adds up to the equivalent of driving around 332 miles.

Internet browsing also accounts for a significant portion of digital carbon emissions. According to Website Carbon, loading the average webpage produces around 1.76g of CO2, meaning if a webpage were to get 100,000 views per month, this would emit more than 2000kg of CO2 in a year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, video and music streaming are among the biggest contributors to the digital carbon footprint, due to the vast amount of power needed to run the devices we stream on, as well as the energy needed to power the servers and networks that hold and transmit the content.  Streaming currently accounts for around 63% of global internet traffic, and video streaming alone is thought to generate approximately 300 million tonnes of CO2 every year (accounting for around 1% of total global carbon emissions).

What can we do?

ClimateCare and MyClimate have both produced useful guidance as to how we can work towards reducing our digital carbon footprint. The suggestions include:

  • Changing email habits, for example deleting older emails regularly and unsubscribing from unwanted newsletters.
  • Limiting video streaming and downloading content where possible.
  • Switching to a green cloud provider.
  • Unplugging devices when not in use.
  • Making devices and equipment last for as long as possible, disposing of old devices correctly, and purchasing refurbished or recycled devices where possible.
  • Storing data locally where possible and limiting cloud usage.

While individual behavioural changes are a part of the equation and certainly have the potential to make a significant difference, it is important to consider the wider context and look at changes that can be made at business and government level.

The ESCP Business School has highlighted the increasing need for businesses to be aware of the digital aspect of their carbon footprint, suggesting that the implementation of green ICT strategies will be crucial in helping organisations to meet sustainability goals, while also lowering costs.

Organisations have the potential to make a significant difference, for example by investing in green data centres and servers powered by renewable energy, building greener websites, refurbishing and repairing IT equipment to prolong its lifespan, and encouraging sustainable digital behaviours among employees.

What does this mean for policy?

As digital transformation continues at speed, the need for clear and effective policies around ICT and environmental protection becomes increasingly apparent. A 2018 report by Policy Connect called on governments and policy makers to recognise the energy consumption of the digital economy, to ensure best practice for the energy management of ICT, and to maximise the potential of carbon-saving digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and analytics.

This call to action is echoed in a 2021 report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which emphasises the need for policy leaders to act quickly to harness technological innovation to address the climate crisis, reduce the cost of green technology, and encourage its adoption on a global scale.

As technology progresses and lines between the digital and physical world become increasingly blurred, policy makers will have the challenge of anticipating change and creating flexible policies to deal with rapid developments and manage the impact.

Final thoughts

Overall, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the potential for digital technologies to address climate change and mitigate the impact of the climate crisis. However looking to the digital future, with an increasing number of people and devices online and increased demands on infrastructure, it is important for the environmental impact of technology to be acknowledged, and the effects mitigated.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on digital transformation and decarbonising:

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Transport’s journey to sustainability

Guest post: If we all choose the fastest mode of travel in a city, the whole city gets slower – and more congested

The more people choose the fastest route by car, the more congested a city becomes. Alexander Popov | Unsplash, FAL

Rafael Prieto Curiel, UCL and Juan Pablo Orjuela, University of Oxford

People in cities often choose how to travel based on how long it will take. In recent years, navigation apps such as Google Maps and CityMapper have enabled people to decide between various modes of transport by seeing which one most quickly gets them where they want to go.

Cities of course have long dedicated a disproportionate amount of space to cars. Although in some parts of the global north – and in certain demographics – car use is declining, elsewhere it has, unsurprisingly, increased.

In a recent study, we modelled what would happen to average travelling times in a city if people were given only one other option – using the car or using another mode of transport – and if they acted only in their own interest (getting to their destination as fast as possible).

We wanted to see what would happen if everyone acted selfishly. How would that compare, we wondered, with a theoretical case in which people chose their mode to minimise travel times for society as a whole and not only for themselves.

City spaces

Using mathematical modelling, we found that if all travellers behave selfishly, and if we have a system that not only makes it relatively inexpensive to use a car, but also allows congestion to affect non-car users (cyclists, public transport users, pedestrians etc), collectively we all end up taking longer to get where we need to go – whether we’re driving a car or not.

City streets are often designed to make travelling by car faster and more efficient. And despite there being, for instance, an increasing amount of cycling infrastructure worldwide and higher satisfaction among people who commute by bike, it is still very common to see narrow, disconnected cycling lanes which result in congestion induced by private cars affecting cycling travel times too.

Mixed-use lanes – those that are used by both private cars and public buses, as opposed to dedicated bus lanes – have the same effect: car congestion affects bus users too. Without proper infrastructure, there are therefore no incentives to use public transport or active transport options, such as cycling and walking.

And even when there is a cycling path network or dedicated bus lanes, if these cross over or otherwise intermittently share space with the general road system, this also slows everybody down. It makes the system as a whole less efficient.

Similarly, free parking for private vehicles also results in longer travelling times for everyone – including non-car users – because they negate the benefits, for individuals, of not using a car if others still do.

We found that selfish behaviour with such inadequate infrastructure results naturally in more cars, more congestion, and longer travel times. If using a car remains the easier and quicker option (on an individual level), people will keep using cars and cities will remain congested. By trying individually to win, we all lose.

Competing priorities

One alternative is to design more collaborative transport networks in which we all accept some personal delay to achieve a distribution that is better for society. We could, for example, include not only personal cost in some of the apps we use, but societal costs also. What if Google Maps told you not only where congestion is in real-time and what would be the quickest transport mode to choose for you as an individual, but which transport mode would offer the best results for your neighbourhood, your family, your colleagues, or your city?

Research has shown how difficult it is, however, to shift commuter behaviour. It also highlights the public opposition there has been to alternative measures such as limiting maximum speeds in order to lower traffic injuries, despite such measures saving lives.

Given this, it could prove difficult to convince some car users to sacrifice personal efficiency for the greater good. But we could start by at least making these trade-offs explicit.

A giant spaghetti junction in Los Angeles.
Our cities are designed with car travel in mind. Denys Nevozhai | Unsplash, FAL

Motorised private transport has a wide variety of impacts that threaten a city’s sustainability, not least the wellbeing and health of its citizens. It contributes to air pollution and climate change through vehicle emissions and results in traffic injuries and nurtures sedentary lifestyles.

To encourage people to use more sustainable alternatives to car transport, cities need strong policies that steer people away from using their cars. So far, these have included low-traffic neighbourhoods and congestion charges that try to make car drivers pay for the congestion they are causing.

Elsewhere, systems have been implemented that attract people to transport modes, such as safe lanes for cycling, that typically have better environmental and social outcomes. These systems emphasise individualistic attitudes but target societal costs to those most responsible for them.

Ideally, we should create policies that help us act in the interest of our community. In the meantime, policies that push people away from their private cars could bring us closer to what would be optimal for the collective even if we are all acting in our own interests.

Rafael Prieto Curiel, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL and Juan Pablo Orjuela, Senior Research Associate and Executive Education Programme Director, University of Oxford

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

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on urban transportation

Guest post: Charging ahead – how to make sure the electric vehicle transition is sustainable and just

Without proper planning, an influx of electric vehicles could cause problems for the economy and our energy supply. Joenomias/Pixabay

Rachel Lee, University of Sheffield

Electric vehicles (EVs) are hitting the roads in ever greater numbers. Global EV sales were up by 168% in the first half of 2021 compared to 2020, and are expected to cost the same as – or even less than – combustion (petrol and diesel) cars by 2028 at the latest. Accompanied by proposed government bans on the sale of combustion vehicles in many countries, EVs will be increasingly commonplace over the next decade.

But EV uptake brings its own set of challenges. While the UK’s national energy provider has assured consumers that there is “definitely enough energy” to facilitate mass EV adoption, the problem lies in how to sustainably and cheaply supply cars with power.

Our local networks were not designed to charge millions of cars with energy simultaneously and, as we move towards a zero-carbon electricity system with variable wind and solar generation, the energy may not be there when we need it most.

The key to handling this lies in ensuring EVs are able to affordably charge when there is plenty of wind and sun-driven energy available. Coordinating this requires significant planning and government investment into a smart charging network.

How to charge

When we decide how to charge an EV, a key consideration is the vehicle’s “dwell time” at its charging location.

If the driver is at home for the night or at work for the day – and therefore in no rush to charge – they can use a seven kW charger, a standard home charger in the UK, to charge their car for a week’s driving (about 250km) in an eight hour session. But if the driver decides to charge their car on the same charger while they pop to the supermarket for just 45 minutes, they’ll only get around 30km of extra range: barely enough for a day’s driving.

Dwell times and charging speeds

A chart showing EV dwell times and charging speeds
How long cars parked at different chargers need to power up. Author provided

In the latter situation, a “DC Rapid” charger – which typically provides between 50 to 150kW – is more appropriate. While they are far more expensive – typically at least ten times the cost of a standard home charger – you get what you pay for: using these chargers will provide roughly a week’s driving in just 45 minutes.

The problem with these rapid charges is that, as well as being expensive, they place large demands on electricity infrastructure which could lead to local blackouts. Since, on average, cars spend about 95% of their time parked, you’d ideally want them to be slowly charging from excess renewable energy during that time, with rapid charges reserved for long road trips and occasional emergency charges.

The dashboard seen from inside an electric car at sunset
The Honda e, a new fully electric car, is an example of EV models hitting the market. EVClicks

In future, cars might also help support their local electricity grid by discharging power at times of high demand when renewable generation is low – a technology known as “vehicle-to-grid”. To enable this technology, communication between chargers and cars needs to be a two-way street, allowing drivers to simultaneously charge up and support the grid.

Energy inequality

Access to power is also a financial issue. For those with off-street parking at home, staying plugged in is easy, but many don’t have that option. That means plugged-in households will have access to low-cost travel, whilst those without home charging will face higher costs due to expensive street charging. In the UK, around 7 million households, many on lower incomes, fall into the latter group.

We must widen access to charging not just to help the grid, but also to reduce social inequity. Street chargers could be automatically assigned to the car owner’s account when they plug in, enabling those without home charging to access a full range of services for the same cost as someone with a home charger.

An electric car charges outside a home
Charger availability for EVs could lead to increased inequality. EVClicks

In the UK, we’d need about 750,000 street chargers to ensure that those without home chargers can charge once a week. If we want to make use of the energy storage in those cars to help balance production and consumption from the grid – and to achieve the UK’s net zero target – I’d estimate we’d need up to 5 million chargers. That would require 500 new street chargers to be installed every day between now and 2050.

Using our cars to help balance our grid will likely be cheaper than energy storage alternatives like pumped-storage hydroelectricity or liquid air storage, since we already have some of the infrastructure we need. But to make this happen, car manufacturers, network operators and energy suppliers – and the UK government – must coordinate to put the right chargers in the right places at the right time.

Rachel Lee, PhD Candidate in Electric Vehicle Usage, University of Sheffield

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


Further reading: more on sustainable transport from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Cycle-friendly societies: lessons from the Dutch and the Danes

The Netherlands and Denmark have become synonymous with high numbers of cyclists and extensive cycling infrastructures. In Denmark, 9 out of 10 people own a bike, while the Netherlands has an estimated 16.5 million bikes in a country of 17.3 million people. Both countries have developed impressive cycle networks and have integrated cycling infrastructure into wider transport planning.

But the prevalence of cycling in these countries didn’t happen overnight – or by accident. Campaigning, urban planning, political support and investment all had roles to play in making the Netherlands and Denmark such great role models for bike-friendly societies.

A historical perspective

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as in other parts of Europe, cyclists in Denmark and the Netherlands were in competition for road space with horses, trams and growing numbers of cars. In Denmark during the 1920s and ‘30s there was a long-running debate on how to accommodate cyclists on Danish roads. Initially, a painted line to separate cyclists from other traffic was suggested. But a high number of accidents pushed Danish planners towards a separate cycling infrastructure, which has grown into the widespread network Denmark has today.

In the Netherlands, taxation funded a national network of cycle tracks across the country.  But after the Second World War, the rise of motor vehicles confined cyclists to the margins, with some cycle paths removed to widen roads for cars. The city of Rotterdam, destroyed during the war, was rebuilt with a plan that put the automobile at its centre, with people commuting by car from the new suburbs.

This decline in cycling also happened in other European countries. In the UK, the 15% of all trips taken by bike in 1950 had plummeted to just 1.3% of trips in 1975. But in the 1970s, popular protests took place in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands against motorway expansion, triggered by steep oil price rises and a growing environmental movement. This backlash persuaded urban planners that more consideration needed to be given to cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. Since then, national and local governments have prioritised policies to make cycling safer, more convenient and more attractive. As one study has noted:

“Instead of catering to ever more motor vehicles by expanding roadways and parking facilities, Dutch, German, and Danish cities have focused on serving people, making their cities people-friendly rather than car-friendly, and thus more liveable and more sustainable than American, British, and Australian cities.”

Cycling today in Denmark and the Netherlands

In the Netherlands today there are 35,000km of cycle paths, while Denmark has 12,000km. In both countries, traffic calming measures have restricted or banned cars on residential streets and have imposed speed limits. There are extensive bike parking facilities – the Dutch city of Utrecht, for example, is building a further 30,000 bike parking spots as part of a ten-year infrastructure plan.

Integration with public transport networks complements the efforts to encourage more people to get on their bikes – in the Netherlands, 50% of all public transport trips begin with a bicycle ride. From an early age, Dutch, German and Danish citizens are taught how to be safe cyclists and to make motorists aware of other road users.

Prioritising cycling ensures that cyclists can get around quickly and safely. In Copenhagen, electronic systems coordinate traffic lights to recognise bikes instead of cars, which means cyclists travelling at a speed of 20km/h find that they hit green lights all the way into the city in the morning, and back again at the evening rush hour.

Could it happen here?

With decades of cycle-centric planning and investment, Denmark and the Netherlands are miles ahead of the UK. But one of the few positives emerging from the coronavirus pandemic in this country has been a resurgence of interest in cycling. During the 2020 lockdowns, some UK cities created pop-up bike lanes, and bike sales soared by 63%. A wave of new cyclists took to the streets, with many feeling safer in the saddle than on crowded public transport.

But with traffic now returning to pre-lockdown levels, cycling campaign groups are worried that the momentum may be lost. As Keir Gallagher of Cycling UK told the BBC:

“If measures aren’t taken now, then unfortunately a lot of those people who have discovered cycling are going to be lost and people are going to return to their cars if they don’t feel safe.”

As Denmark and the Netherlands have demonstrated, infrastructure is a vital factor in persuading more people to take up cycling. One UK city that’s been working hard to improve its cycling infrastructure is Cardiff. In 2017, Cardiff Council launched a 10-year cycling strategy, which aims to make walking or cycling the first choice for short trips within the city. Working with transport planners and civil engineers, the council has identified five primary route corridors for cycleways, connecting major destinations, existing communities and strategic development sites across the city. In the coming years, over 30km of segregated cycle routes will radically improve Cardiff’s cycling infrastructure. Clearly, Cardiff’s efforts are paying off: last year, the city came top in a poll to be named Britain’s best cycling city.

The road ahead

The rewards of cycling for individuals and for wider society are numerous. Cycling causes almost no noise or air pollution and consumes far fewer resources than automobiles. It’s also good for physical and mental health and is much more affordable than other modes of transport.

The economic impacts of cycling are also considerable. A 2015 study by the University of Birmingham highlighted a number of benefits: cyclists visit local shops more regularly than drivers; property values of homes in cycle-friendly areas are higher; cycling to work leads to lower staff turnover and fewer sick days; and facilities allowing children to cycle to school save on the public cost of school travel.

With governments now aiming to build back better, fairer and greener, perhaps there’s never been a better time to learn lessons from our neighbours on how to be a cycle-friendly society.


Further reading: more on sustainable transport from The Knowledge Exchange

How have health librarians been responding to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic over the past 18 months has highlighted the vital role of information and knowledge services in supporting health and social care, public health, and medicine.

Last month’s Annual CILIPS Conference included a presentation about #HealthLibrariansAddValue – a joint advocacy campaign between CILIPS and NHS Education for Scotland (NES) which aims to showcase the skills of health librarians and demonstrate the crucial role of health libraries.

Library and knowledge services in the health sector have faced increased pressures and a multitude of challenges throughout the pandemic as they have continued to develop and deliver vital services and resources to colleagues under unprecedented restrictions and changed working practices. With the demand for trustworthy and reliable health information higher than ever, it is clear that well-resourced, coordinated and accessible knowledge services are essential.

Supporting the frontline

Throughout the pandemic, the work of health librarians has been vital in supporting frontline workers including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and social workers. Hospital library services have been directly involved in medical decision-making, providing evidence and resources to support patient care and the training of medical staff. As the information needs of the medical workforce have changed through the course of the pandemic, health libraries have had to be fast and flexible to provide time sensitive and urgent information to those on the frontline.

A project undertaken by the NHS Borders Library Service saw the creation of a new outreach service for local GPs, which involved the delivery of targeted current awareness bulletins, resource lists, and Covid-19 research updates, all of which directly informed the provision of primary patient care and helped to keep GPs up to date on emerging knowledge about the coronavirus.

Health Education England’s (HEE) Library and Knowledge team adapted their services to meet changing workplace needs, ensuring 24/7 access to digital knowledge resources, gathering evidence on how to keep staff safe while working, and developing training programmes to support virtual working practices for healthcare staff.

Supporting decision-making across sectors

Health librarians have played a major role in informing the UK’s pandemic response at a national level, aiding public health decision-making and facilitating partnership working across sectors.

Librarians from Public Health Scotland’s (PHS) knowledge services have worked closely with PHS colleagues to coordinate Scotland’s response to the pandemic. Their work included the creation of daily Covid-19 updates for PHS’ guidance teams, distributing the latest and most relevant research on key topics, and adapting these updates in line with PHS’ changing priorities (for example as their focus shifted from virus transmission to vaccine efficacy). Librarians at PHS have also been involved in creating evidence summaries to support specific Covid-19 research projects, such as an investigation into the relationship between Covid-19 and vitamin D. The evidence gathered by knowledge services helped PHS to formulate their response on the issue and make national recommendations relating to vitamin D intake.

On 12 July 2021, PHS launched their Covid-19 research repository, which is managed and maintained by the library team and collects, preserves, and provides access to Scottish Covid-19 research. This project aims to support policymakers, researchers, and the public by bringing together Scotland’s Covid-19 research in one place and making it easily accessible for all who need it. It is also aimed at reducing duplication of effort, which health librarians had recognised as a concern during the pandemic.

Similarly, Public Health England (PHE)’s library aimed to tackle the duplication of effort across England by creating their ‘Finding the evidence: Coronavirus’ page which gathers emerging key research and evidence related to Covid-19 and makes it accessible in one place. Many resources on the site are freely available and include a wide range of resources including training materials, and search and fact checking guidance.

Health libraries have also been informing decision-making across the social care and third sectors, with NES librarians facilitating digital access to research and evidence via the Knowledge Network and Social Services Knowledge Scotland (SSKS), and providing training and webinars to help users make the most of such services. NES librarians have been involved in partnership working with organisations such as the Care Inspectorate, SCVO, and Alliance.

Keeping the public informed

A key challenge for health librarians during the pandemic has been in dealing with the information overload and spread of harmful misinformation around Covid-19.

Library and information professionals have had a key role to play in providing trustworthy information to patients and the public, helping people to make informed choices about their health and wellbeing. As previously mentioned, librarians have helped agencies like PHS to deliver clear, meaningful, and authoritative guidance to the public, as well as making up-to-date and reliable Covid-19 research centralised and widely accessible to the public.

The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasises the importance of health literacy in enabling  populations to “play an active role in improving their own health, engage successfully with community action for health, and push governments to meet their responsibilities in addressing health and health equity”. Health librarians have been at the forefront of efforts to promote and improve health literacy during the pandemic.

NES’ knowledge services have been delivering training and webinars to health and social care staff on how to improve people’s health literacy, and health librarians working with HEE have created targeted Covid-19 resources for specific groups such as older people and children and young people.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the work of health librarians has been crucial to the UK’s pandemic response and recovery so far, and advocacy campaigns like #HealthLibrariansAddValue are central to highlighting this important work and demonstrating its impact.

Looking forward, it is clear that innovative and high-quality knowledge services will be essential in a post-pandemic world as they continue to aid recovery, promote health literacy and support the health and social care workforce. As set out in HEE’s Knowledge for Healthcare framework, investment is required at a national and local level to build expertise and support the digital knowledge infrastructure which will be required.


Further reading: more on health from The Knowledge Exchange blog