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 mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.