The Permutation of Plans

In the last few years technology has begun to impact upon how we travel, but it has perhaps had even more impact on how we treat time and space. The introduction of personal ICTs has allowed for the making of just-in-time plans. Flexibility is the key indicator for plans which can be changed at a moment’s notice. This shift has policy and technology implications reflected in an expanded use of transport smartcards, real time transport information systems, and dissemination of transport information via non-traditional outlets.

In 1996, I got lost at a concert. I knew my friends were in the crowd somewhere, but not exactly where. An innate sense of misdirection coupled with a heaving crowd and low lighting meant that, for all intents and purposes, my friends had entered the realm of the spatial unknown. I knew they wouldn’t leave without me, but I was equally sure that the next time I saw them I might be standing near one of the exits, alone, as they jostled out happily singing snippets of favorite songs they had heard while linking arms and standing together as a little bastion of solidarity. I felt removed that night, and nervous. I rarely, if ever, feel that way anymore, and the reason is the small rectangular object I keep nestled on or near my person at nearly all times. Today, were I to get separated from my friends, we could send text messages, photos, and any number of other pieces of information using our smartphones that would allow us to reconnect before the song for which we were waiting was played.

Technology matters

This small incident is a telling one of how technology has begun to impact upon how we travel, and the expectations we have regarding the ‘reading’ of space. Much has been made of late of our declining map-reading skills, with the blame being placed squarely at the feet of satellite navigation systems, online and smartphone-based mapping programs, and a general reliance on technology over cognitive skills. This, however, is only one side of the story. Though technology has certainly changed our behavior with respect to spatial cognition, it has perhaps had even more impact on how we plan travel, and how we treat time and space. While maps are a critical component of way-finding, they are less constructive inwho-finding – or the process of diligently attempting to meet up with members of one’s social network. Questions of decision-making, timing, meeting places, and likely routes are of key importance in the latter, and here the evolution and widespread adoption of location-aware information and communication technologies (ICTs) have had innumerable impacts. In the transport realm, ICTs have contributed to the propagation of Harvey’s space-time compression, and have, by extension, impacted upon our travel behaviors as a whole.                         

Prior to the widespread adoption of the cell phone, travel planning involving multiple parties nearly always took place in advance, and with the tacit assumption that plans, once made, were inviolable. Coordinating the mechanics of arriving at the same place at (nearly) the same time required determining not only the meeting place and time, but also the underlying questions of who needed a ride and who could provide one, how long one would wait if one or more parties were delayed, how a message would be passed along in the event of a disruption, and any other number of contingency plans necessary due to the reality that circumstances sometimes changed, but plans would remain static and based upon best knowledge at the time they were made.

See you sometime tonight, somewhere

The introduction of personal ICTs has, of course, changed this. Just as technology has allowed for the rapid expansion of just-in-time production and delivery practices, cellular and smart phones have allowed for the making of just-in-time plans. Flexibility is the key indicator here – plans can be changed at a moment’s notice with a text, a quick call, or an IM. Running late? Check the real-time traffic information, pick a new route, and send a message with a revised ETA. Original choice of meeting place too crowded? Send a text asking for other suggestions and regroup. Held up on a slow train? Book a taxi to meet you at the next station. Cycling through a friend’s neighborhood? Find out if he’s available to meet at the local coffee shop.

The ability to make these decisions in real-time and based upon the current context both removes and increases uncertainty in traveling. The removal is simple to understand – in the event that something goes wrong with my journey, I can (generally) quickly and easily inform others of that change. If I get lost, I can look up new directions. If someone’s plans change, that information is easy to send quickly and with a minimum of fuss. The addition of uncertainty is perhaps more perplexing. At heart here is the respect for time, and the expectations we have regarding timeliness and the fulfillment of plans once made. The inviolate nature of plans that we once depended upon has now become vulnerable. Last-minute changes, and the knowledge that the means of communicating these changes is only a screen tap away, lays open the ability to re-frame plans and expectations frequently and, at times, carelessly. The concept of ‘on time’ becomes fluid, until it meshes with ‘close to the time by which I said I would try to be there in my last text update’. The process of updating, rearranging, and reconfiguring expectations is still planning under uncertainty – the timeframe of that uncertainty has simply shrunk itself to fit into the milliseconds between text sent and text received.

But what is it really like out there?

Despite the indefiniteness with which we treat our time and space, we do still expect that the official transport information provided to us will be valid and impervious to fluid time. We expect that the estimated drive times provided on variable message signs will be accurate, that real-time public transport arrival times will more-or-less reflect reality, and that news reports of traffic delays will be timely and allow us to make better, more efficient routing decisions. Both as persons in the transport network and as those tasked with its development and management, we anticipate that the ability to both disseminate and access real-time, on-demand, and highly personalized information via roadway messaging, smartphone transport applications (‘apps’), and social networking sites carries with it the expectation that we will use these mediums to share information with travelers.

Communication of transport events and disruptions, along with options and itineraries, compliments and complaints, now takes place in the very public and timely arenas of Facebook and Twitter. These public and spatially-unbounded mediums require, more than ever, that information shared be accurate, relevant, and timely; otherwise, their benefit over timetabled information is negligible and their usefulness subject to question. Meanwhile, the balance of information shared by ‘official’ sources (such as transport agencies and media outlets) versus ‘unofficial’ sources (such as private individuals) is in constant shift, as providers work to confirm the veracity and validity of reported transport disruptions, and calculate the reputational ramifications of sharing un-validated data quickly, or verified data too slowly.

So, where does that leave us?

Transport and travel have clearly changed with increasing reliance upon real-time and personalized means of information sharing and communication. Perhaps the theme that underlies all of this, however, is that we are moving towards putting the travelers themselves at the heart of the transport network. We are no longer constrained to plan travel based solely upon information received from roadways, vehicles, or a static network; rather, we can plan and execute travel based on the needs of the person – where she wishes to be and when and to do what. Such a shift is evident in the move towards activity- and agent-based modelling systems, but it is also evident in how transport is treated by the traveller. The rapidity of communication and decision-making leads us to shift our transport expectations: plans may change, but we can still get where we need to go – predicated, of course, on accurate and timely data.

This shift has, of course, policy and funding implications as well. Recognition of this is evident in the increased investment in communications infrastructure within the United Kingdom (and elsewhere), and expanded use of technology such as public transport smartcards, real time transport information systems, and dissemination of transport information via non-traditional outlets such as Twitter. Conversely, the wealth of data being collected by travelers via smartphone apps, GPS-enabled devices, and other sensors represents a rich source of person-based information to inform transport planning and project implementation. Questions of privacy, anonymity and ethics will need to be more fully considered and addressed before efficient use can be made of such resources, but the potential implications are boundless.

Which then opens a series of questions: Are our traditional models of transport provision reflective of the new reality? Do our models and methods accurately reflect the timely provision of data and subsequent behavioral changes? Are the expectations of travelers aligned with the actions of transport providers? Are transport providers, managers, and operators making adequate use of emerging communications technologies? Answering and addressing these questions will be of concern tantamount to the construction of new infrastructure in coming years, as we work to refine our travel needs contextualized by our technological abilities. Planning for the person in the context of a network comprised of travel modes, communications systems, and fluctuating conceptions of space and time will require revised thinking – of priorities, of expectations, and of future needs.