Health warning about the PCT

Transport planning has a biased focus on the commute, yet 80% of journeys are non-work journeys. It is therefore painful to see that a recently published tool (yes, yet another online tool!) has very little to say about this limitation.

Here I am talking about the PCT tool. It stands for ‘propensity to cycle’ and its data source is Census 2011. Let me be clear from the outset, there is nothing wrong with using this dataset and there is nothing wrong with the PCT team of academics wanting to use it. My deep concern however is that the PCT website does not adequately warn about the dataset’s focus and the limitations this brings for the analysis. A paper which was published to explain the PCT is more than scant on explaining these inherent limitations of using census data. So many opportunities to insert a qualifier, but none taken.

My worries relate to Pooley et al (2005) ‘A mobile century?’:

“In contrast [to commuting] short distance residential moves, and especially everyday mobility, have been largely neglected [by the current system with its practices]. Although these are the moves that most people make most of the time, it is often assumed that their impact and significance is limited. However, it is contended that mundane and almost invisible activities (such as everyday mobility) can and do have real significance for both the individual involved and the wider society.” P.9

“[M]oreover the census does not collect any information on other travel such as journey to school or to shop, even though in terms of transport planning it can be suggested that such trips have at least as great an impact on traffic flows and urban congestion.” P.36

The PCT falls into these traps by not qualifying its origin and the resultant focus. Without an explanatory contextualising comment, it remains favouring centralised trips and in-work (better-off) areas. Without a qualifying comment it leaves the context and situation to guesswork for the user. A health warning about the input and output is urgently needed.

Who are the users? I am writing this as an activist in Newcastle, who will be in the sad position to try to explain to Newcastle City Council how this tool works, what its data source is and what its limitations are. Often, when working with the council, there is only a very tiny window of opportunity: they are usually on a roll and the chance to influence from the outset is typically very limited. Maybe the tool works well in a London context with its densely and widely populated area, for Newcastle the PCT outputs are discriminating against community hubs and areas of local civic activity.

Deprived areas of higher unemployment are not worthy of cycling infrastructure, is a message the PCT tool seemingly promotes – visually, through maps and lines. Eager local authority officials will jump on the colourful graphics; and the text (too much, too unfocussed, too technical) will be irrelevant to them.

If my council grabs this tool, and I am speaking from experience here, it would most likely be used without understanding its context. There is a real risk that the Westend and Byker get no plans for cycling infrastructure. There also is a risk that the authority will only concentrate on centralised journeys into the city centre, rather than the creation of a network. This undermines what is campaigning for. Their campaign plan is to educate decision-makers about the importance of a full network – not just radial routes to the centre but cross-connections too, opening up community trips. The PCT output detracts from this effort. And without an adequate description on the PCT website it will now be tedious work for local campaigners to explain to the council how exclusive and commute-biased the PCT analysis is.


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