Journey planning apps need to think more about walkers – before governments force them

Oh, terrific. Image: author provided.

Here’s a story. Last summer I went on holiday to Stockholm. Being a digital native, I eschewed guide books and paper maps in favour of my phone.

And I almost immediately regretted it. On asking Google Maps to tell me how to get from the metro station to my hotel, it gave me a walking route which included about eight flights of stairs to get me down an urban cliff edge. One problem: I had a large suitcase.

I’m a healthy adult, so I managed to heave the case down, with a lot of sweating and some profanity that would have taught even the most Anglophone Swede a thing or two. And as I lifted, dragged and kicked the case down the stairs, it occurred to me that I’d have been royally screwed if I had mobility problems – or had a pushchair instead of a suitcase.

Google Maps knows this walking route includes stairs. If you go into the detailed step-by-step instructions, rather than immediately following the dotted route, it says “take the stairs”. But there’s nowhere to toggle an option to say ‘avoid stairs’ and no upfront warning flag when it comes to accessible walking directions.

Oh, great. Click to expand. Image: Google.

Citymapper is also available in Stockholm. The journey planning app suggests the same walking route but isn’t so sure about the stairs: the route graphic zigzags, but not in exact line with the stairway. Andrew MacDougall from Citymapper says the main problem is a lack of a data standard or format for things like walking.

“Transit timetables and schedules are relatively discrete information sets covered by GTFS [General Transit Feed Specification],” says MacDougall. “The same isn't true for data on walking through city streets, which is largely crowdsourced.”

What about Google Maps? Having chatted with a spokesperson, there’s nothing in development – at least, that they’re willing to publicly acknowledge – which would allow users to select step-free walking options.

In the capital, Transport for London says that accessibility is a huge priority right now, but it’s limited to what it can do outside its own realm. Step-free information within stations is available, and staff are working on details like tracking how long it takes to walk between platforms at stations such as the mammoth Green Park.

Once a user is on the pavement, however, it’s a different story. TfL can map its stations and walking distances between, but the actual streets in London are managed by a combination of TfL, the Highways Agency and boroughs. Getting all that detail together is a daunting task.

This a growing issue. As we rely more on our phones to get us places, pedestrians are increasingly going to face the same difficulties as drivers following their satnavs, only to be directed down streets too narrow or under bridges too low for their vehicles. If you don’t fit the mould of the average user, you’re going to encounter problems.

In addition to my Stockholm incident, I’ve recently been blithely directed by Google Maps up outdoor stairs to get to a Leeds pub and over various footbridges as the only way to cross dual carriageways. To get to CityMetric’s office from New Bridge Street to the west, the fastest route is up several flights of stairs.

There are alternative routes, but these are the first ones suggested, because they’re the fastest. And the apps give no indication of accessibility issues unless you interrogate each route individually. And, really, who has the time?

It’s important our walking apps get better – and not just for people with mobility difficulties, buggies and luggage. Walking is an excellent way of staying healthy. More people out and about on the street also boosts local businesses. It’s a general win-win.

Walking charity Living Streets agrees, but has concerns that making walking easier isn’t a priority for tech companies. “Apps have the potential to improve health outcomes,” says spokesman Steve Chambers, “but only if walking is prioritised in the user interface. We’re already seeing journey planning apps evolve from merely providing travel information to linking through to transport service provision. If we’re not careful, active travel options, which cannot currently earn revenue for the app providers, could be deprioritised in the app user interface.”

In the course of researching this article I did some journey planning in Google Maps and was surprised to see the first set of directions default to cab-hailing options. The app has now learned I prefer to see walking first, but it’s worth remembering that Google Ventures holds shares in Uber (and is reported to be considering investing in Lyft).

Citymapper responds that the very first transport modes its app suggests are walking and cycling, which is true – though they are immediately followed by Uber and Gett.

That’s not great news, particularly when you consider that the company probably best placed to provide accessible walking information is Google. Getting the information is the hardest part, and we know it already has detail about stairs. One question is whether Google is confident it has enough of that detail to launch a service where users can ask for step-free walking options.

Another question is whether there’s enough motivation within the company to develop in that direction. I’d say, if they can find the development time to turn the yellow Street View icon into the Queen near Buckingham Palace, they can manage this.

Living Streets suggests that, if travel apps don’t get on this, they could find themselves obligated. “To improve public health outcomes local and national governments will need to influence third party app design,” Chambers says. “This could include highlighting information about step free or low incline routes.”

If transport apps want to be truly useful, then they need to cover the whole route. An option that would tell users they should approach CityMetric’s office from a different direction could affect which train station they get off at, or which bus they take. It’s something that needs building into the entire planning process. Which app will get there first?

The editor would like to make clear that he does not encourage readers to visit the CityMetric offices.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.