Floods caused by Storm Desmond left more than 2,500 homes without power, washed away bridges, closed schools and hospitals and caused serious damage to homes and businesses across swathes of northern England and Scotland.
Meanwhile, the closure of the Forth Road Bridge due to structural defects has left 100,000 people, along with major corporations such as Amazon, facing large diversions and substantial delays. At times such as this, a cottage industry in back-of-the-envelope calculations rushes to estimate the disastrous costs to the economy.
Infrastructure failures and natural disasters are facts of life. While the agencies responsible for maintaining our infrastructure such as Network Rail and Transport Scotland seek to protect us against the biggest and most common problems, it rarely stacks up economically, financially or politically to guard against low probability, high risk events. And even if they did try to do this, they would be unable to cater for all possibilities. The risks posed by climate change and terrorism are notoriously difficult to predict, so significant failures of some kind would still occur.
Of course, the responses of emergency services and public transport providers do have a big impact on how quickly things can return to normal. Providing extra bus or rail services, and dedicated lanes for buses or goods vehicles, can help people to resume their daily routines. For example, in Edinburgh, an extra 11,000 bus seats and 6,500 rail seats are being provided to cope with the Forth Road Bridge closure. Even so, these measures are unlikely to match up to the numbers of people that would normally be on the roads, and train and bus stations probably are not ready to cope with such a big surge in demand.
So, instead of just trying to maintain our usual routines in the face of huge disruptions, we should see these events as opportunities to try out new ways of doing things and getting places. Indeed, there is a significant body of research which tells us that, if well managed, major changes to the availability or quality of transport and infrastructure services need not be catastrophic for quite so many people.
A good example is the success of the travel management strategies put in place for the London Olympics in 2012, and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. In both cities, significant efforts were made to adapt transport services. But these only worked when combined with the adaptability of businesses and the flexibility shown by commuters.
Yet this capacity for social adaptation can’t simply be switched on and off – it needs to be developed. Most of us have regular and clearly defined travel patterns, developed around the demands of our day-to-day lives: we base our home, work, schooling and leisure choices around an increasingly complex and time constrained pattern of journeys. And for each of these journeys, we have a set of expectations as to its likely length and quality, based on different modes of transport.
If we can relax some of the constraints around which we structure our everyday lives, then it will be much easier for us to adapt when things don’t go according to plan.
The path less travelled
For one thing, we can exercise a surprising amount of flexibility just by drawing on our social resources. Recent research on transport disruptions found that, for disturbances lasting up to a week, people were as likely to postpone and rearrange trips as to cancel them. Asking colleagues to assist with work trips, coordinating family or neighbours to help with school runs, and shopping in new locations can all help us to deal with disasters.
Likewise, where personal circumstances allow it, rearranging schedules and leaving earlier or later from jobs or activities can go a long way toward making disasters manageable. Workplace flexibility is crucial here: bosses must be adaptable when it comes to the timing of shifts, tolerating lateness or encouraging working from home.
It is much easier to take alternative routes or means of transport when you’ve tried them out before. Those who are already familiar with more than one way of getting to work are better able to adapt. The good news is that two-thirds of people already use more than one means of transport each week. And planned outages, such as strikes, can also offer less chaotic opportunities to experiment with new routes and modes of transport.
We will be more resilient to a range of problems if we foster a future where everyone is a little less dependent on their cars, and a little better equipped to manage without them. The added appeal of this approach is that travelling less by car more generally would also help us to tackle congestion problems, long-term climate change obligations and the obesity crisis, in ways which suring up our infrastructure will not.
There’s no doubt that engineering solutions such as flood defences and investment in preventative bridge and road maintenance have a major role to play when it comes to trying to prevent catastrophes. But as a society, we should also be trying to make it easier for people to be more flexible and also more multi-modal, more of the time.