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Under the weather: Reimagining mobility in the climate crisis


5 min read Partner content

Transport systems are essential to the movement of people, things, and services. When disrupted, as during severe weather, social and economic costs are high. Communities are vulnerable to extreme weather – whether in Canada or in the UK. In this article, Dr Stephanie Sodero from The University of Manchester, draws on her research and uses Atlantic Canadian hurricane case studies to explore how communities can prepare for increasing local disruptions to transportation systems resulting from shifts in the global climate. She presents practical recommendations for policymakers on how mobility can be reimagined to work with, rather than against, the climate in ways that also benefit the health of local communities.

  • With increasingly frequent and intense weather events, disruption to transportation systems will increase.
  • Communities supported by local and national governments need to examine how they can be less reliant on mobility.
  • Climate protection must be integrated in all transport decisions, from where to build local hospitals to global medical supply chains.

Beyond zero-emission vehicles

Mobility is built into the DNA of communities from local school buses to global supply chains. Human mobility (driving, flying, and shipping) is entangled with the climate emergency. Fossil-fuelled mobility exacerbates severe weather, and in turn, severe weather disrupts human mobility. A shift to zero-emission vehicles is critical but insufficient to repair damage or prepare communities for the disruption severe weather will cause. For example, an electric vehicle is of limited use if roads are washed out. Communities need to re-evaluate extreme mobility dependency and the impact of mobility disruptions on basic services from senior home care to fuel supply chains.

For example, due to one storm in Atlantic Canada (Hurricane Igor in 2010) more than 100 communities were cut off for up to ten days due to extensive road and bridge washouts. This meant that vital mobilities, such as travelling to a chemotherapy appointment or ensuring insulin access were disrupted. Here in the UK, events like Storm Desmond (2015) routinely result in flooding of road and rail networks. In light of increasing heat and flood events combined with industrial action across sectors, it is high time to revisit the Pitt Review and related recommendations made following 2007 UK summer floods.

Reimagining mobility in the climate crisis

My research introduces two concepts valuable in reimagining mobility. For policymakers these concepts are useful in describing, analysing, and acting on both disruptions to mobility caused by severe weather, as well as simultaneously decarbonising the transport sector.

First, an ecological approach to mobilities is a way of thinking about the movement of humans in relation to the movement of the environment, including rivers, animals, and carbon emissions. It is an overarching concept that highlights the inseparability of human mobility from the climate, emphasising that human mobility is not conducted in isolation but in coordination with extensive webs of people, things, and ecologies. A mobilities approach identifies the contemporary trend of mobility dependency and related disparities, such as transport poverty, as well as the impact of mobility disruptions on access to healthcare, education, and services.

Second, ‘climate routing’ adapts the marine navigation concept of adjusting course based on wind and currents, asking how society can correct course to reduce climate impact and prepare for disruption due to severe weather.

Five practical recommendations are spotlighted below for policymakers across the areas of climate, health, and transport. The goal is to reimagine how mobility can be designed to work with, rather than against, the climate in ways that benefit the overall health of local communities.

How can communities and policymakers prepare for disruption?

  • Revolutionise mobility. Create a government-coordinated interdisciplinary, time-limited, and empowered working group to consider: ‘what different mobility futures are possible?’, ‘what counts as appropriate movement in a decarbonised society?’, and ‘what does local mobility need to look like in the face of more severe weather?’
  • Prioritise vital mobilities. Vital mobilities are external societal circulations necessary to life, such as medical oxygen and homecare workers. Invest in increasing the mix of available approaches, including community-based care, telemedicine, and emerging technologies to ensure access to medical goods and healthcare in the face of disruption.
  • Embrace green and blue. This is a catchall term that captures ecological mobilities on land, in water, and in the atmosphere. Implement approaches that increase storm buffers like living shorelines; accommodate ecological flows like swollen rivers; and monitor ecological health using data gathered from scientists and interested members of the public. These approaches allow for a closer, more conscious relationship between humans and the environment, fostering an ethic of care.
  • Rebrand redundancy. Ensure back-up options and associated skills are available. Active transportation, for example biking, paired with technology like electric vehicles and drones, may characterise future post-disaster mobility. Translate the concept of root cellars, which were used in Canada to ensure food supply during long winters, to goods, energy, and skills that act as a stop gap when global just-in-time lean supply chains fail.
  • Think flex. This ranges from everyday mobilities to disaster mobilities. From walking to school to flying for work, backup travel plans, familiarity with alternative routes and cancellation policies, will be the new norm. In the context of disaster, policymakers can foster a culture of community preparedness such as by training and supporting local disaster resilience teams made up of citizens and supported by professionals that identify evacuation routes and disaster response centres.

These ideas can augment the UK’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan (2021), ensuring that reaching net zero and managing disruption are addressed in lockstep. They also underline the need to revisit the issue of transport disruption in the UK, as explored in the Pitt Review, including the compound of disruption related to severe weather and other sources of disruption such as industrial action, as well as impacts of healthcare and education access

Creating a new policy landscape

Examining and transforming the relationship between human mobility and the climate will allow communities to imagine and enact greater resilience. The concepts and recommendations explored in this article give policymakers, advocates, and researchers the language and ideas to enact changes that protect the climate and buffer communities from disruption. This means creating more nuanced and far-reaching climate adaptation strategies where disruption is integrated as expected, rather than exceptional.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.


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