MATHS – The Mobility, Active Travel, Health, and Society blog

Thai-style multifunctional roadside structures

We can see a lot of these structures in roads in Thailand, especially in rural areas. They have a nice design and are used for different purposes. They are called ศาลาริมถนน (sala rim thanon), or “roadside pavilion”. They are a variant of Sala Thai, open pavilions used as meeting place or for shelter. For example, town halls and temples often have one. The roof design helps with ventilation.

Thai Style Multifunctional Roadside Structure (TSMRS). © P. Anciaes

Since I am a researcher, I will proceed by creating a new multiword concept for these roadside pavilions, together with an acronym which has never been used before and will never be used again. Let’s call this the “Thai Style Multifunctional Roadside Structure” or TSMRS. I could now splash the rest of this post with TSMRS’s. For further academic kudos, I could mix it with other obscure acronyms, to make a tasty soup of letters. But I want you to keep reading so I won’t do it.

For years, I thought these roadside pavilions were just bus stops. If they were just bus stops, they would still be great. They are spacious, have bench seats, are sheltered from sun and rain, are easily identifable, and have a unique design. What they don’t usually have is bus schedules. But there are not that many fixed-schedule buses anyway. And even for non fixed-schedule public transport, they are still the best place to wait, because they tend to be conveniently located and are sheltered. One problem of using these pavilions as bus stops, though, is that they are only on one side of the road. If the bus comes from the other direction, it forces passengers to cross the road.

It’s a bus stop. © P. Anciaes

But these pavilions are much more than just bus stops.

In a country where half of all registered vehicles are motorcycles (21 million of them), and there is intense heat and rain, the roadside pavilions provide a welcomed shelter for motorcyclists. Some also use them just to have a rest or even a nap, or to make a phone call.

It’s a shelter for motorcyclists. © P. Anciaes

Car users use them too, for resting, eating, or just to make a pause from driving. And some use them to smoke, which is an unhealthy activity, but it would be worse if they did it inside the car.

Stop there at the TSMRS, I need to make a call. © P. Anciaes

Another fascinating use of roadside pavilions is that they can be a place for socializing. You often see several motorcycles or cars parked nearby and people sharing the pavilions. So it’s a great opportunity to interact with other road users – something that private transport does not provide, by definition. And compared with the bland, commercial resting areas on motorways, these pavilions are more conductive to social interactions.

In some villages, roadside pavilions are also used by locals as a place to meet others and watch the world go by. So they also have a “place” function. And there are possible interactions between travellers and locals.

Meet me at the TSMRS at half past five. © P. Anciaes

A less obvious characteristic of these pavilions is that they are easily identifiable in aerial photos, so it’s easy to find the way in Google Maps by using the structures as a spatial reference (“it’s near the 3rd TSMRS after the junction”).

The final purpose of roadside pavilions is just to be iconic. When you see one you know immediately that you are in Thailand. And for Thai residents, seeing these structures around the country, with a similar style, will probably contribute to their image of the country, and to national identity.

There are also similar pavilions along rivers and canals.

It’s iconic. © P. Anciaes

There are standards for roadside pavilions. In this site you can see the different designs (A-D are the older, nice ones. E-F are the newer, boring ones). But choosing a design for a new pavilion, or for replacing an old one, is controversial.

Many people prefer the older A-D designs and hate the E-F designs because these do not do their job well. They don’t really block the sun and rain as it’s discussed here (in Thai but with illustrative pictures). Here’s another news showing clearly the differences between the two designs.

On the other hand, supporters of the newer E-F designs argue that the traditional A-D designs are wooden structures, which tend to deteriorate with time. So when they are replaced, they should be replaced with more solid and durable metallic ones, such as E-F designs. These new designs also require less space are have more visibility (when they’re used as bus stops), for passengers and bus drivers. So they can be safer.

In sum, another topic for people to fight about in social media.

I had fun thinking about how these structures could be made more high-tech in the future. If they were in Japan, each one would have several dozen vending machines with drinks and snacks, but from what I was told that wouldn’t work in Thailand for several reasons. Some more ideas: add an emergency phone, or emergency phone charging point. Or an electric vehicle charging point. Or free wi-fi. Or a message board. Or displays with road and weather conditions. Maybe even a microwave???

When checked online I found out that obviously I was not the only one with visions for roadside pavilions. This idea here seems nice. It’s more inclusive as there’s space for wheelchair users. It also has some ads so it can partly fund itself. And the design is modern but it retains some distinctive Thai-style elements. It seems good as a bus stop. But it also seems that all other purposes of the multifunctional structure are gone. It’s just a bus stop…

Urban microhubs and cargo cycles

There is an urgent need to reduce the local and global environmental effects of transport (air pollution, noise, Co2 emissions). This requires among other things, reducing the number of motorised vehicles on the road. Many policies have been applied in several cities to persuade citizens to switch from private cars to public transport, walking, or cycling.

Yet, in almost all cities around the world, roads are still full of motorised vehicles. Road traffic levels have not declined much (or not at all). This is because of the increase in urban freight traffic. Demand for home deliveries had been increasing a lot before Covid. It has increased even more since then.

The solution is either making fewer deliveries or making more environmentally sustainable deliveries -for example, using “urban microhubs”.

Microhubs are small facilities where freight is received in bulk and is then re-distributed to nearby residential or commercial premises by low-emission vehicles (for example, cargo cycles). Microhubs can be in industrial or commercial units. However, because they do not require much space, they can also be in garages, car parks, or in underused spaces, such as under railway arches.

I have co-authored a study just published by the UCL Centre for Transport Studies, based on the results of a consultancy project for British Land (one of the largest real estate companies in the UK). In the report we discuss the benefits and costs of urban microhubs and how they depend on the location of the hub within the city. Download the report from here.

Cargo cycles and cargo cycle drivers in Central London. © P. Anciaes

By shifting traffic from motorised vehicles (trucks or vans) to cargo cycles, microhubs benefit local communities, as they help reducing pollution. They also ease the pressure on roadspace, both for movement and parking.

Microhubs can also benefit shippers, freight operators, and customers. They allow for faster, more reliable, and more flexible deliveries, compared with conventional delivery. This is because freight is consolidated in the microhub, and consolidation tends to be an efficient way of organizing freight distribution. Furthermore, in congested cities, cargo cycles are often faster than bigger vehicles, like vans, because they can use streets closed to these vehicles.

But these benefits of microhubs are not certain. They depend on their location within the city.

In the report, we used spatial analysis to identify the areas in London that fulfil essential conditions for the viability of the microhub:

  • A minimum level of demand for deliveries in the surrounding area (from residents, business, or organizations).
  • Suitable conditions for using cargo bikes, including the existence of cycle lanes/tracks in the vicinity, traffic calming measures, and general cycling safety (assessed based on the history of car-cycle collisions).
  • Location near main freight distribution routes (as goods and parcels need to be delivered from bigger hubs to the microhub).
  • Availability of a suitable pool of labour that can access the microhub either by walking/cycling or by frequent public transport.

The areas of London that fulfil these conditions are below. They are not very central areas. But they are not very suburban areas either.

Areas in London estimated as suitable for the establishment of a freight microhub (Anciaes and Jones 2023)

The funder of the report (British Land) used its results to make their decision about where to invest in land for a microhub in London. That’s great for them but also for us. Research impact.

The area chosen by British Land is in Paddington, an area at the edge of central London, with good accessibility by road to outside the centre but at the same time good accessibility by cycle to inside the centre. This microhub can remove around 100 vans from central London, reducing environmental problems.

The report got attention from the general media. It was reported by the Evening Standard, a London newspaper. It was also reported by Zag Daily, a site specializing on innovations about cycling and micromobility.

A sister report, also commissioned by British Land, was published by Centre for London, reporting the results of interviews abour microhubs with freight and logistics experts in the private and public sectors.

Other microhubs exist in London. Of course, a certain company named after a South American river already has one. Other companies also have their own microhub, or share microhubs. In other cities, microhubs are starting to appear. So expect to see more cargo cycles around.

Fear and loathing along and above the railway

Concerns about personal security are a major factor explaining travel behaviour. People will adapt the way they travel if they fear they can be victims of crime, harassment, or unsocial behaviour that makes them feeling uncomfortable.

These concerns apply mostly to public transport, shared taxis, cycling, and walking. These are the modes where people share space with strangers (in vehicles, stations, bus stops, and streets). People using private cars are more protected (although car parks, and the walking trip from/to them, can also feel dangerous).

If people feel unsafe using a travel mode, they might switch to another. They may also reduce the number of trips they make. Or they might avoid travelling after dark or in places with few other people around.

Studies have shown that women, older people, ethnic or national minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community, are quite concerned about personal security when travelling.

Regardless of the real danger, some types of travel environment feel more dangerous than others. Environments with poor lighting and few other travellers around feel more dangerous. Environments without “eyes on the street” (i.e., people using the street or looking from their windows/balconies) feel more dangerous. See here what Jane Jacobs thought about that.

In some cases, the infrastructure used by a mode of transport creates insecure environments for other modes. For example, railways sometimes create insecure environments for walking, especially in cities.

One reason is that railways cut the city into fragments. Often, there are narrow streets, alleys, or paths along the railway lines. By definition, there won’t be people on one side of those streets, as that side is the railway, and not buildings with frontages and “eyes on the street”.

In many cases there are also no people on the other side, but walls or fences, or the backs of buildings. The streets next to railways also tend to be narrow. And the connectivity of these streets is poor, because, again, on one side is the railway, which can only be crossed in a few locations, using footbridges or underpasses. So people often need to walk for quite a while along these streets.

The photo below shows an example, in North London, of a path sandwiched between the railway (on the right) and a wall (on the left). This is obviously not an attractive place to walk, even during the day, because of its isolation. And it’s quite long: 650 metres. Once you’re in it, there is no way out other than turning back or keep walking until the end. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk the whole length, but it feels longer than that, because of the fear (and the loathing of yourself for having chosen this way).

Alleyway along a railway line in North London. © P. Anciaes

This is a potentially useful path as it’s the shortest way between two stations, on different railway lines, so it could be used for interchange. Furthermore, the neighbourhoods at both ends are dense with residents and businesses. So this poor walking connection may be preventing many potential walking trips.

Poor maintenance adds to the problem. In the case above, the trees reduce visibility and cast shadows, which reduces people’s perceived safety. And the litter contributes to an hostile walking environment.

This is a poor pedestrian space in all aspects. I did street audits in the area in 2016 and this was the worst pedestrian space I found. It’s the reddest link in Figure 6a in this paper.

The path has been described in another blog, with a bit more history and local context, and several photos. There is even a song about it. But it is not a place much loved in the area. There have even been attempts to close the path.

Another problem related to the fragmentation of urban space created by the railway is that the few available crossings often become insecure places themselves. They are usually protected with high walls, to avoid falls, so they are not visible from outside. Again, poor design and maintenance do not help. Here is an example, in the same area in North London, of a crossing over the railway, with a spooky environment, even during the day.

Footbridge over a railway line in North London. © P. Anciaes

Insecurity in the walking environments around railway lines may make people avoid walking, which may even mean avoiding using rail itself as a mode of transport. If they don’t have other options (e.g. private car), they may miss on opportunities, such as employment and education.

So this is a problem. Removing the railway is not a feasible solution, in most cases. But smaller interventions may help. For example, remove excessive foliage from trees, regular cleaning and maintenance, surveillance, or even street art.

Of course, if the path keeps attracting unsocial behaviour, and repelling pedestrians, there is also the option of closing it, especially at night.

Those ugly elevated roads

It’s widely recognized that motorised road vehicles, such as motorbikes, cars, vans, and trucks, create environmental problems in the areas near roads. Anyone can feel it when walking along or across a busy road, or from their windows, if they face such roads. Noise, and air pollution are two of the most tangible problems.

There is less discussion, among planners and researchers, or in the media, about the negative visual aspects of roads and vehicles.

Yet, there is evidence that ugly roads are not a sight people like to see. The evidence is provided by the market, and the market usually knows what people prefer. Properties with views to ugly roads are cheaper than similar properties with views to more pleasant things. Evidence can be found here, here, and here (note: the first two are not open access and the third is in French).

What is an ugly road? Studies that investigated this question found that many people think that large roads are ugly. Road with lots of traffic are also regarded as ugly, although here we don’t know if the eyesore is the road itself to the vehicles using it. This is not an easy thing to analyse becasuse ugly roads have plenty of other problems (like noise and air pollution), so we cannot disentangle the visual problem from the other problems. I have written about that in this article.

Elevated roads are a notorious eyesore, as they are very intrusive in the visual environment. Because they are large, they also block views that people may want to see (like green areas, water, or the sky). And they are intimidating for pedestrians and cyclists, because of their high position and the shadows they cast underneath.

Elevated road. Sydney, Australia. © P. Anciaes

The visual intrusion caused by elevated roads can be aggravated by light from lamp posts or vehicles’ headlights, and by structures such as signs and billboards. Structures to reduce noise (such as barriers) increase visual intrusion.

Another problem with elevated roads is that the space underneath is often underutilized or neglected. This is because the pillars take up some space. In addition, the land becomes less valuable because of the road above and its noise and visual impact. Jane Jacobs wrote about that (see here and here). Note: you’ll see a lot of Jane Jacobs links in this blog.

The result is that we often end up with car parks underneath elevated roads. Or just empty space.

Elevated roads and car park. Quebec City, Canada. © P. Anciaes

Visually intrusive elevated roads can disturb people at home, at work, or walking around. They reduce people’s satisfaction with the area where they live, affecting their mental health and wellbeing. If people walk less because the environment is ugly, then ugly roads also affect physical health.

The obvious solution for this problem is to remove the road infrastructure altogether, or putting it underground. One example is the Cheonggye Expressway in Seoul, which was removed to restore a stream and create a new park. Another example is the Central Artery in Boston, part of which was put underground, to create a park and a boulevard. This type of radical solutions is becoming more politically acceptable, as a way to increase quality of life in cities.

A less radical solution is simply to reconvert the space under elevated roads, making it more attractive to pedestrians, with green spaces or leisure and shopping areas. The Bentway in Toronto is an example. It is an ongoing project to give some utility and beauty to the space underneath an elevated motorway crossing the city. (See more about walking Toronto in another page of this website).

To say that a road is ugly is subjective. Some people are bothered with it, others don’t. Governments may believe that improving the wellbeing of some people (the ones who don’t like to see the road) is not enough to justify expensive and controversial projects to remove roads or reconvert the space underneath them.

But maybe the economic argument can convince them. Removing roads reclaims land to the city. That land has an economic value. It can be used for new businesses. And the absence of the ugly road may motivate people to spend more in existing businesses. The image of the city, as a whole, may improve, which can bring more visitors, residents, and businesses.

So maybe removing roads or making them less ugly is an investment that will pay off, both in terms of increased wellbeing and in a more narrow sense of “paying off”: it can make the cities wealthier.

Autonomous vehicles and virtual reality

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-driving vehicles are vehicles that do not require a human driver. Self-driving vehicles already exist. The technology is there and it works. Self-driving vehicles have been tested in real roads and they seem to be safer than human-driven vehicles (although machines also make mistakes).

But there is no road in the world used only by self-driving vehicles. This is a scenario that people can only imagine. How would people feel when the vehicle they are using does not have a human driver, and is interacting both with pedestrians and with other vehicles that also do not have human drivers? It’s difficult to test this scenario in real-life right now.

Virtual reality is a solution to understand more about this. Virtual reality can show scenarios with much detail, both of the interior of the vehicle, and of the outside. The scenarios can be integrated into head-mounted devices, i.e., “helmets” worn by participants in controlled experiments. Participants feel that they are immersed in a believable scenario that completely surrounds them.

The reactions of participants to what they experience can be measured using devices that monitor heart rate, skin reaction, or brain activity. A simpler method is just to ask participants what they felt, at the end of the experiment.

Virtual reality can be used to compare people’s experiences using human-driven vehicles and self-driving vehicles. It can also be used to compare different conditions for using a self-driving vehicle. Here are several of many possible examples: comparing busy vs. quiet roads, urban vs. rural environments, day vs. night, a few vs. many pedestrians and cyclists, fine vs. rainy weather, straight roads vs. road with many curves, vehicles moving vs. parking.

It’s also possible to test different designs for the interior and exterior of the vehicles and different driving styles.

Several academic studies have used virtual reality to understand how people would react to self-driving vehicles. Most of these studies are open access. To be honest, I found most of them difficult to read because of an unhealthy number of unnecessary acronyms. The studies also tend to rely on samples of only young people. In most cases, only students. And in some cases, mostly male students. Groups such as older people who cannot drive tend to be forgotten in this kind of studies. Maybe because students are easier to recruit for the experiments?

But the studies still have interesting information about the levels of trust that people place in self-driving cars, and the situations that cause anxiety. For example, several studies have found that people like to be informed by the vehicle of what is happening and what the vehicle is doing. Situations with pedestrians on the road tend to be seen with some anxiety.

This is an area with fast development so we will see more studies using virtual reality to study self-driving vehicles in the next few years. Hopefully they will be include more representative samples of the population that will use these vehicles in the future.

Self-driving vehicles: how exactly will people use them?

A self-driving bus in the Netherlands. Dickelbers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-driving vehicles are great. You don’t need to do anything, the vehicle drives itself. Self-driving vehicles are here already. They circulate mostly in controlled environments, to test the technology. Others are partially automated only (they still require human supervision). But at some point in the future, fully automated vehicles will completely replace human-driven vehicles. This includes not only self-driving cars, buses, vans, and trucks, but also smaller vehicles for deliveries (by road, water, or air). For example, drones.

Many people are still not aware that this is happening, or have only a vague idea. Others do not welcome the idea of self-driving vehicles, because they would prefer to drive themselves. Or they have concerns about safety or about the vehicle software failing during the trip, being hacked, or being used as yet another way for big corporations to spy on them and track their lives.

But people also recognize that these vehicles can be quite useful to transport passenger and freight.

I am working in a research project, funded by the European Union, doing an impact assessment of the economic and social benefits of self-driving vehicles across 8 European countries. Follow us on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow me too.

We spoke with citizens and organizations across Europe to understand what type of self-driving vehicles they think could be useful, and how they, and others, would use them in the futuree.

This study reached more than 300 citizens and organizations, including individuals with different demographic, socio-economic, and residential location characteristics, and organizations of different types, sizes, and geographic reaches.

Many participants suggested on-demand public transport services using self-driving vehicles. Users would just book a vehicle to pick them up, when they need to go somewhere. This could be a way to improve access to places where many people want to go, such as central areas of cities, train stations, universities, schools, hospitals, and health centres. These public transport services could improve the local economy and be useful to people who cannot drive or do not have driving licence.

Shuttles connecting stations or airports with tourist facilities and attractions could have a large potential economic benefit in regions receiving many tourists, and help reducing congestion.

Self-driving buses and mini vans provided by local governments could also improve accessibility of older people, and communities in remote areas. This is a solution, for example, in small islands or in mountainous areas, where people in small villages are isolated in many ways (they are far from the local centres and far from the national capitals and big cities, with few and irregular transport to go there).

When it comes to freight and parcel deliveries, people suggested drones, delivery bots, and pods, which could be used to deliver goods or medication to isolated areas, or in areas where standard delivery vehicles (vans, trucks) have limited access, due to narrow roads.

So, overall there was optimism that self-driving vehicles could improve local economy and enhance social inclusion. Even if they do not plan to use the vehicles themselves, people recognize the utility for others.

There is still time to design future mobility, based on self-driving vehicles, that can benefit all people, instead of being just a privilege for the few who can pay for it. Achieving this type of equitable mobility is a major opportunity for transport policy in the next few years.

Give as little space as possible to pedestrians, then let cars park on it, then make that space a legal parking space

Cars parked on footways is a feature of many cities. I’ve seen this in many cities in Europe, especially in the East and South.

But I guess there are few cities in Europe with a higher density of cars on footways than Lisbon. This happens mostly in streets far away from where tourists go, so it’s not regarded as a big policy problem. Except for people who need to walk, of course. This site collects pictures of cars parked on pavements in Portugal, mainly in Lisbon. It’s in Portuguese but you can see a lot of horrendous photos.

I took the photos in this post during a recent trip. I had to remove part of the plate numbers because it was uncomfortable enough being asked by aggressive (and always male) drivers why I was taking photos of their cars.

Cars on pedestrian pavement in Lisbon. © P. Anciaes

In Lisbon this happens a lot in areas where footways are already narrow, because strreets are also narrow. So pedestrians are forced to walk on the road.

This kind of unsocial behaviour is unfair for older people, children and people with visual impairments or restricted mobility. If their whole neighbourhood is like this (and many neighbourhoods in Lisbon are like that) they may fear going out, and do so less often than they would like to, missing on seeing friends and doing other things that they need to do to have a healthy life.

More cars on a pedestrian pavement in Lisbon. © P. Anciaes

Cars on footways do not restrict only the mobility of pedestrians. They may also block traffic and cause delays to other users, especially in narrow streets. In the case of Lisbon, cars on footways often block trams and hold cars and buses behind them.

Parking on footways is illegal. So one solution to the problem is more enforcement, fining car users doing this. Obviously, this is not being done in Lisbon, as whole streets are permanently filled with cars on footways.

A more “elegant” solution (not) is to make parking on footways legal, reconverting the footway as a parking space, as below. Problem “solved”.

Yet more cars on a pedestrian pavement in Lisbon, but now the pedestrian space has become a legal parking space

If cars are permanently parked on footways, it means that demand for parking is far greater than supply of parking spaces. This begs the question: why is demand so high, in relatively central areas, where many buidings do not have garages or parking areas? Could it be lack of good public transport? Or is it because people are so attached to cars that they feel the need to have one even when living in areas where it is not feasible to have it? (Unless they park on footways).

Lisbon is just an example. In many parts of the world (South and South East Asia, Africa), footways do not even exist as a concept. The part of the street next to building frontages is not recognized a space exclusive to pedestrians. It’s space to park motorbikes or cars or for shopfront displays. I will write about this in other posts.

What has walking got to do with transport?

At the border of a certain North American country

– BORDER GUARD: What’s the purpose of your visit?

– Paulo: I am going to attend a conference

– Humm. What is this conference about?

– It’s about transport

– What?

– Transportation

– Hummm.. What sort of transportation?

– All sorts of transportation. I am going to speak about walking

– Walking?? What does walking have to do with transportation?

Obviously, walking is not a popular thing to do in that country. Walking is such an odd thing to do that people become automatically suspicious if they’re walking in some suburban areas (and the internet says that people have been arrested because of that).

But the exchange above could happen anywhere. Walking is not often seen as a means of transport.

Of course, walking was the first mode of transport humans have used. For many centuries, it was the dominant mode of transport.

Moscow Street of 17th Century, by Aleksandr Lozhkin. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Walking can get us to places where we can do, see, and buy things, or meet other people.

What’s so great about walking is that, besides being a mode of transport, is also a healthy activity. It’s physical activity, which is something most people don’t do enough.

Regular walking reduces the risk of stroke and heart diseases. It can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It also burns some calories, so it can help us maintaining a healthy weight.

Walking is also good for mental health and wellbeing. It can reduce stress. It’s time to think and look around (although nowadays most people prefer to stare at their phones instead…)

Paris Street, Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Walking also facilitates social connections. We have more chances to meet and stop to talk with someone when we walk along a street, slowly, and just next to to building frontages, than when we pass through them inside a vehicle at high speed.

It’s true that, in some cases, the physical activity benefits of walking are balanced with some costs. Walking in polluted, noisy roads, full of cars, can be bad for physical and mental health. And crossing the roads can be dangerous and stressful.

But overall, walking regularly is still a good way of adding physical activity to our lives, with the advantage that it will also take us somewhere.

There will be a lot of posts about walking in this blog. In addition, this website also has a section ONLY about walking, cataloguing walking conditions in cities around the world. So stay tuned. And follow me so you’ll know when I talk about your city.

Walking is good. Berat, Albania. © P.Anciaes