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Facing up to meeting online



Here at CoMoUK we are putting together an online conference. Who isn’t? you might well ask.

Time and our audiences will tell how successfully we will have pivoted into the different media we use in 2020. Instead of discussing catering and table layouts we have been debating the merits of different platforms for different functions. Out has gone the shaky video link from afar and in has come the hopefully steady-as-a-rock video link from far and wide.

They are media that pre-existed the Covid pandemic; it’s just that now we are using them much more of course. There is a wider lesson there I think: let us look to the tools we already have in our hands that can lessen our impact on the planet and make sure we are doing all we credibly can with those before we reach for new ones.

Some of this has been incredibly positive. Although we did a creditable job at this previously, getting colleagues to attend from public authorities was something we had to work at hard. That has eased considerably – all they need to do is to click a link at the right time and take part from wherever they are. Similarly, with international speakers.

In other words, inclusivity is up because barriers to entry are down. There is plenty to be taken from that at a philosophical level too (as I attempted to cover when I analysed our experience of social inclusion and bike share in LTT01 May).

Whether we achieve the same levels of engagement remains to be seen. There is a wider parallel here too. There is no simpler way to cut transport emissions than to not trans- port somebody or something in the first place. But we are social animals and this comes at a cost to us, our networks, our experiences of life.

My experience tells me that online connected time is not the same as face-to-face time. It is somehow both quicker and slower, and certainly more draining, while also being often very rich and full.

Our discussions about the conference format concluded that mimicking the formats (I nearly wrote ‘old formats’ there) of face-to- face events was unlikely to be the way forward. We have instead tried to adapt. That’s another lesson – we must surely throw our energies into designing around the world we now have, as we continue to move through this pandemic, rather than the world we used to have.

So out went the modal sessions we used to run in favour of sticking with themes. I anticipate these will form a lot of the talking points for us in this critical decade ahead.

We’ll start with where we are now – Covid and its disruptions. Laying aside the awful human health impacts of the pandemic, I think it is clear that there are significant transport benefits (less travel, much more walking and cycling) that have occurred, but very large questions over whether they can be sustained; and that there have also been significant disbenefits (motorised traffic back to pre-Covid levels within the context of much lower travel demand overall).

Then we will move on to setting a greenhouse gas emissions agenda for the UK as a country with one year to go before hosting COP26 (the planning for which continues on the basis of a face-to-face event), which will rightly be a calling card over the coming year for those seeking to cut transport emissions.

We have a session on urban, which understandably gets lots of attention. It is where most of our fellow citizens (a telling word) live, after all, and where most of our emissions come from in transport, and where the concentrations of those emissions cause the greatest harm.

We also, however, have a session on rural, which is packed with speakers and interest – and I think one side-benefit of Covid may well prove to be renewed vigour in sustainable rural transport (LTT20 Dec 19), but this will undoubtedly be challenging. Which is not a euphemism for impossible.

Hubs (LTT08 Nov 19) are a focus and relate to both urban and rural and the space in-between. Our speaker mix reflects the actor mix in the emerging mobility and community hub economy, an economy we plan to do more work to help in the near future. The impact of Covid here has undoubtedly been to move away from just the mobility aspect and more towards the community one. As some people leave cities and others whose lifestyle was based on significant distance commuting are finding themselves working from home much more, we expect that is a balance that will neither remain as it is currently – but nor will it tip back to how it was before.

We’ll be tackling strategy and procurement, which perhaps doesn’t sound as sexy as, say, strategy and vision but is in fact where a lot of this cutting emissions stuff will actually be decided.

Having a vision is important but far from sufficient in the game of emissions reduction: just ask those local authorities who have declared climate emergencies but failed to take any other significant steps. Or look at the lack of progress on clean air zones. Strategies can drift into visions, especially when they have very long-term overall targets but a dearth of short- and medium-term targets and measures. The London Mayor’s current transport strategy largely fits in this category, sadly; as does the Government’s actions on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. I think – and I do hope I am correct – that neither will remain in this category.

Then we will turn to the (under-played) role of employers and institutions in achieving emissions cuts, greater use of sustainable modes and changing user behaviour. I see them as a critical enabler in the decade ahead.

Finally, we will look at 2025. Remember when that seemed a very long time away? Floating conveniently in a Buck Rogers-type distance? It is only just over four years away so it really is time to start thinking where we should be by then, not least as we will have used up half the critical decade by that point.

It will be interesting to hark back to this moment in time then and see what has endured. Will we be in a 2008 parallel, where climate consciousness was raised only to be dashed on rocks labelled ‘economy recovery’? Or will we find ways to rebuild our economy without further damaging our planet?

The conference is free to attend and details including registration are at

Hope to see you there!

Richard Dilks

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