As I was presenting at the DENVI Annual meeting 2020 last May (via Zoom), I spent some time talking about an issue I was facing due to the pandemic. The challenge posed by the COVID-19 travelling restrictions and social distancing practices had forced me to conduct my semi-structured interviews in Helsinki, Stockholm, and Oslo remotely. This caught the attention of HELSUS and I was asked to write about my experiences alongside my research.
Defining, applying, and assessing ‘urban transportation sustainability’
My PhD project spirals around the definition and application of sustainability within the urban transportation sector. ‘Sustainability’ as a globally trending planning objective is accompanied with the need to track the progress which in turn has led to a steadily increasing volume of sustainability assessment tools, frameworks, and indicators that operationalise the broad sustainability concept both in academia and practice. The general definition of a sustainable urban transportation system includes social, economic, and environmental issues that require consideration in a balanced manner. Emissions and other negative ecological impacts need to be lowered, while accessibility, safety, social equity, efficiency, and economic growth ought to be increased. Walking, cycling, and public transportation must be prioritised over private motorised transportation, and the practical applications must also be tailored to match the local conditions and the needs of the citizens.
Currently the operationalisation of sustainability in urban transportation planning and policy-making is not comprehensive – some aspects of sustainability are emphasised while others are completely excluded. Literature has shown that the popular sustainability aspects tend to be easy-to-measure and easy-to-achieve, and largely revolve around emissions and effectiveness. Many social and other qualitative issues are traditionally overlooked due to their more abstract natures that are then classified as too challenging or too expensive to measure when it comes to data collection. This limited accounting for social and qualitative aspects of sustainability also leads to marginalised utilisation of diverse citizen knowledge. When specific issues are easily excluded from sustainability assessments due to non-existent data their role is also inherently diminished in the policy and planning objectives. This mismatch between the comprehensive sustainability concept and its narrower practical applications within the transportation sector is referred to as the definition deficit of sustainability.
My research comparatively moves from the academic framing of sustainability to the municipal decision-making, and finally onto the citizen perceptions of sustainability to understand what ‘sustainability’ manifests, why it is framed a certain way, and moreover how to more comprehensively and diversely account for sustainability in local policy-making and planning in the future. The interviews among local politicians and planners are thus an essential part of this project as the local context, transportation system challenges, political agenda setting, planning and policy influences, citizen participation, and sustainability assessment techniques are investigated.
The pandemic affected my research in two ways. First, I was unable to conduct my (as established, essential) interviews face-to-face. Second, the local impacts of COVID-19 echo in my interview material, as more flexible and temporary transportation and mobility measures, and the times that will follow were brought up by several respondents.
Regarding the challenges we were unexpectedly facing, and still continue to face, I was surprised by how little these issues were discussed within our University of Helsinki community. I’m not in a unique position and the problem related to the interviews I had was relatively easy to solve, whereas many others were forced to alter their entire research designs, let some ideas go completely, or experienced delays in their work. In the DENVI presentation I even brought up some positive aspects my dilemma had created. The time frame for conducting the interviews was much more flexible, and I could share a presentation on my screen with the questions appearing one by one to steer the freely flowing discussion. However, the situation did come with its drawbacks. The most obvious ones being the constant fear of the connection dying or that something would happen with the Teams recording function. In only one interview did everything go wrong starting with a weak internet connection due to the respondent’s relocation to their countryside summer house, my overly confident trust in technology, and the frantic search for a lifeless handheld recorder that was last used in 2009 to record acoustic indie pop covers with a friend. The respondent and I brainstormed together looking for the best solution which in the end was to conduct the interview over the phone while I wrote nine pages of notes. Ironically, this interview took place right after the DENVI presentation where I had with such naivety declared how I believed the remote interviews had more pros than cons. Luckily, the bathroom renovation in an apartment above me didn’t start until a week after I had conducted my last interview that spring.
Many people have asked me if I think there’s something missing from these interviews if compared to the traditional face-to-face approach. I really do not know. These are the first interviews I’ve ever conducted so there’s no baseline. In the beginning, I asked a few respondents how they felt about the presentation and the remote interviews. With all the responses being positive, I felt pretty confident in this format. Also, as my interview questions aren’t of personal nature they probably work better remotely compared to more intimate themes where a connection and trust between the interviewer and the respondent would be key. And of course, I’m potentially missing out on the end-of-the-interview chitchat (that is sometimes referred to as the most valuable part of the conversation). Now, as soon as we are done we really are done. All in all, the material I’m getting is rich and answers the questions I’ve set but the effects of Covid-19 will absolutely be visible in my work as well as in the work conducted by many others during this era.
is a PhD candidate in the Doctoral Programme in Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences (DENVI) and a member of the Urban Environmental Policy research group. Her research focuses on the conceptualisation and operationalisation of ‘sustainability’ in urban transportation planning and policy-making with special attention paid to social equity and the role of citizens.
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Photo by: Linda Karjalainen (2021)