RGS-IBG 2012 conference

I finally got to present research on transport and energy, at the RGS-IBG conference 2012. The talk itself went well, and the event was great fun. Both things are described below.


Modal split for travel to work in Yorkshire and Humber (2001) measured in terms of trips, distance and energy.

I was presenting in the session “Uncertain Futures: Transport, Mobility and Energy”. My paper (slides here) was closely related to that done by Ian Philips, which was even more “apocalyptic” in its approach: to hypothesise what would happen in a scenario of oil scarcity. The motivations for reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels include climate change mitigation, improving health and quality of life, and peak oil. It was this final motivation that Ian and I focussed, although policies that tackle peak oil general have related benefits, environmental and economic. This raises a question: Why focus on energy security? Good question. Well, health and environmental impacts have already received a lot of attention: strong evidence shows active travel should be promoted. Yet no major policy changes have happened, partly because of their unclear impacts and widespread denial and ignorance of the underlying science. Peak oil, on the other hand, is non-negotiable, and scary.

After explaining the motivations for my research the data requirements and methods were described. This is the technical part: spatial microsimulation is a method that allocates individuals from a national dataset to geographical zones based on shared constraint variables. In the model presented in the paper age/sex, mode of travel to work, distance travelled to work, and socio-economic class were the constraint variables. The model provides us with estimates of the income, energy use, and other characteristics of people living in the areas under investigation.

Now the fun part: results. The first thing to note is the massive domination of the car in the journey to work. Cars account for approximately 60% of trips, 75% of distance, and 90% of energy used to get people to work and back each day. This is an important finding in itself, because it means that cars should be the focus of measures to reduce oil dependence.

The second result: rural areas, and especially poor people in rural areas, have the highest levels of ‘oil vulnerability’. “No **** Sherlock!” you may jeer. Yet this is the first time that such levels of vulnerability have been quantified: how much more vulnerable are some areas than others? Now we can find out. Also, there are subtleties in the results that show vulnerability is not solely due to location: poor areas close to employment centres may be more vulnerable than rich areas far from cities, especially based on the economic index of vulnerability. This may be due to the high economic cost of commuting by train in city centres. The energy cost results are more consistent: isolated areas nearly always have high levels of vulnerability.

“Commuter fuel poverty” rates estimated for Medium Super Output Areas in Yorkshire and the Humber

Which measure (economic or energy) is best? Well that depends on your perspective.

Regarding the conference itself,
it was highly diverse. There were talks on “More-than-human-geographies: from coexistence to conflict and killing”, “’For Love of the World’: Arendt, politics, space”, “Ludic geographies”, and “Geographies of spirituality: security, wellbeing and the extraordinary” to name but a few. In fact, by my estimation, around half of all sessions had similarly weird and (depending on your viewpoint) wonderful titles.

On the other hand I attended sessions that presented work that truly felt cutting edge, on visualising time-space data obtained by issuing GPS trackers to participants, on the health impacts of green spaces, and on transport geography. Some of these presentations can be seen on my Youtube TV channel. This is my effort to make geographical research slightly less elitist.

All in all it was great fun and, like a good democracy, delusional behaviour should be discouraged by debate not by dogma. It was awesome fun and confirmed something I’ve felt before but never said: I love geography!

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