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You get the kind of traffic you plan for

Why urban transport networks are a twentieth century solution to productivity, and why communications networks will supplant them.

We all hate traffic. Yet we all contribute to it each time we jump in the car. And when we drive to work during rush hour, we are contributing to congestion.

With the Transport Committee’s current inquiry into urban congestion, the public were invited to submit their solutions to the problem. In their responses they will have explained how their favourite modes of transport can be better accommodated. Yet I get the feeling there’s a bigger picture, and a better solution which the focus on transport systems, as invited by the Transport Committee, seems likely to miss. I’ll talk about the solution in a minute, but first I want to define the problem and to explore its causes.

Why people need to travel in peak time

Journeys to work during rush hour fulfil a social function; transport is the way society connects the workforce in order to facilitate productive labour. As urban conurbations grow in size, so do their working populations and the number of people needing to pass through the nodes (the bottlenecks) of the transport network at peak times. So we see congestion on the roads and railways, and we see increased journey durations. As a result, the journeys themselves become stressful, and people arrive in an unproductive state.

Urban transport networks were more or less effective, in the twentieth century, as a means of gathering the workforce on a daily basis. But the economic viability of transport is waning. A somewhat extreme example of this is London, a city where the utility value of the car is negligible for many day-to-day journeys. The immediate context for this is massive urban congestion. In London, you can’t get anywhere fast by car, due to the volume of motor traffic.

We already have a solution

And yet many people no longer need regularly to undertake journeys in order to do office work or to buy and sell goods, because other forms of technology have supplanted vehicles. These activities are more quickly accomplished from home, once travel time is factored in; they are also accomplished better in many cases.

As the 21st century progresses, three things will happen for sure: digital bandwidth will grow, communications software will develop, and people will learn better ways of using communications systems. This will amount to social change, that some are already comparing to the industrial revolution. It is change we have begun to see with more people working from home, occasional teleworking, online shopping and the increasing diversity of residential delivery networks beside the traditional player Royal Mail. That change will go much further, and it will have the potential to relieve pressure from commuter transport networks at peak times.

Ongoing migration to cities may mean those conurbations which don’t facilitate this change will feel increasingly ‘full’, i.e. full of people trying to transport themselves at peak times in order to get basic stuff done, in the 20th century mode.

Current efforts to tackle congestion amount to system modifications that, it is hoped, will alleviate peak time congestion. Yet at its most basic, congestion represents a system where load exceeds capacity to such an extent that the network is no longer usable, at least not as intended. And, significantly, new capacity is often absorbed by a corresponding growth in demand, at least where the road network is concerned. New ring roads soon become as congested as the inner city streets whose traffic they were supposed to displace, for example. The phenomenon of demand growth is somewhat the elephant in the transport planners’ room.

In future this may be better recognised, because there will be a viable alternative to transport networks. Successful organisations (and cities, and nations) will have facilitated the next generation of communications technology. In essence, they will recognise the scope of the problem, and they will start planning for a future they want to see, with more viable ways of connecting the workforce.

13. December 2016 by admin
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The demonstration of awareness in performance

I once heard an interview with a stand-up comedian who talked about a warning she had been given, early in her career, that her act was too high-brow. “You do sophisticated cabaret,” she had been told, “and there’s no audience for sophisticated cabaret.”

The comedian in question was Victoria Wood, whose death was announced today. Her work encompassed various performing arts, including stand-up comedy, song and acting and writing for theatre and TV. Those who worked closely with her have commented on how precisely she crafted her writing, and how she would select words for comedic effect, often with attention to their rhythm. The guy at the BBC tasked with editing Victoria’s scripts found himself somewhat at a loose end because her material came to him perfectly formed.

I’m sure an understanding of one time-based medium can inform an understanding of another, and that competence in one artform enhances competence in an analogous one. So with Victoria Wood’s songs, the musicality of the language made the jokes funnier. And this allowed her to bring something special to the writing process, something most others didn’t have.

Victoria Wood’s skills with both language and music gave her an edge in performance too. Sitting at a piano, she understood her material both lyrically and musically, and this understanding – expressed with a wink and a grin – was central to the act. It wasn’t just that you were just in safe hands; she showed you that you were in safe hands. Victoria Wood’s performances were, in part, a demonstration of her awareness of form, undercutting her mock innocence toward the content.

Reincarnation Song. The integration of music and lyrics here is designed for comedic effect – and note the use of pause to heighten that effect.

Victoria Wood’s career tracked the pattern of change in British popular entertainment, so that while there may have been a limited market for her act in the clubs of 1970s England, her skills were noticed by the BBC who gave her a platform. Her ability to collaborate with other artists, such as Julie Walters, then brought her opportunities she would never have imagined.

I guess, when you’re at the start of your career, you don’t know what you’ll end up doing. Perhaps that’s especially true if you’re highly skilled, because you’re likely to be presented with more choices about your future.

The guy who told her there was no audience for her act may have thought he was offering solid advice. You’re good at what you do, but there’s no market for it. If you’re at the top of your game though, it doesn’t really matter whether you fit into the current commercial structures, because one of two things might happen: you might *find* an audience for what you do; and those commercial structures might reorganise to fit around you, since they reorganise anyway from time to time. Both of these things happened for Victoria Wood, a woman who was very, very good at what she did.

20. April 2016 by admin
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How to do well at university

If you are about to start university, you may have high high hopes for the teaching you’ll receive. University education will be the most rigorous you’ve ever experienced, you might think. How do these expectations compare with reality? How does undergraduate teaching differ from A levels? And what can you do to get the most out of university?

University wasn’t the experience I’d anticipated at all, and I had to adjust my expectations soon after arriving. But I got a lot out of university learning, once I’d figured out how to approach it. In fact, when I finished my degree course, I went back for more.

These are my tips for undergraduates who want to do well at university. If you find this useful, share the link.

Get the lowdown from the year above

The students in the year above you have been through what you’re now going through. As a result, they’ll have opinions on the lecturers which they’ll be happy to share. They’ll also have a view on which modules to choose, if your course offers a choice – some modules sound great in the university’s blurb but turn out to be boring, and vice versa.

Find a space to work

My work space was the library. It was quiet and had everything I needed for studying: window seats for reading, PC workstations for writing.

Working in the library had other benefits too. The separation from my living space allowed me to focus, and it stopped me going into the kitchen to hunt for snacks. Perhaps most importantly, working in the library meant I got essays written quicker, leaving me time to do more interesting stuff.

Make your first assignment a good one

During my first term, I discovered a simple cheat. If the first piece of work I submitted to each of my lecturers was top quality, they’d perceive my subsequent work as good too, even if I hadn’t spent as long on it, because they would look for quality in it. It works as long as they remember your name.

At the age of eighteen, I thought I was some kind of genius strategist for devising that ruse. Turns out I’m no genius, and neither was I gaming the system; what I’d done was make a good first impression, a ‘strategy’ which applies to… pretty much everything. Who knew?

Proofread your essays

The few times I’ve read the work I handed in at university, I’ve thought, ‘Oh, that’s actually pretty good… But what is this sentence?… That makes no sense at all… It’s not even English!… Oh! it’s a typo… What a lazy dick I was for not reading my own essay.’ Even better, I could have asked someone else to read my stuff: we don’t see our own mistakes; we see what’s meant to be there.

Read stuff that you’re interested in, even if it’s not on the reading list

You’re in the library, looking for whichever books your lecturer put on the reading list, when you see a title that looks far more interesting. You might choose to ignore that book. My tip is: don’t. Borrow it and read it some time.

Remember before university, when reading was something you did for fun, because you were curious about stuff? That was real learning, because that was you discovering material and reading it out of interest. Get back to that.

You get out what you put in

A third year student told me, “on this course, you get out what you put in.” Something clicked. University is unlike A levels, because you have to make the learning happen. These are my tips:

  • ask plenty of questions of your lecturers
  • find connections between the different pieces of knowledge you already have and get those into your essays
  • question your assumptions, like your best teachers encouraged you to

Truly, you get out what you put in. And there’s a flipside: you get out only what you put in. Those who choose to do practically nothing at university can and will get away with that, but they don’t gain much.


To sum up, get the inside intelligence, by taking opinions on your modules and lecturers from students in the year above.

Consider physically separating work and leisure. A big part of your work is reading and writing. Choose to work in a place that’s good for these activities.

It’s easier to make a good first impression than to salvage a poor one. This means giving your first pieces of work your best shot. And if you want your marker not to be distracted by your typos, ask a fellow student to proofread your work before you hand it in.

Universities expect you to manage your own learning, which means tying together different strands of your prior learning and pursuing your curiosity. Your university teachers will be far less involved in this than your sixth form teachers were. This doesn’t mean university education is less rigorous (although it may seem that way at first); it means, if you want to really understand stuff, you need to go the extra mile. Push yourself – the skills and confidence you’ll gain from doing that will prepare you for ever bigger challenges.


Alex Bailey has an arts degree and two postgraduate teaching qualifications. He works as a technical writer and an English language tutor. His tutoring programmes focus on student motivation, placing learners’ interests at the centre of the curriculum. Read more.

You can follow him on Twitter.

15. January 2016 by admin
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A guide to surviving your first year at university

There’s a lot of hype around university life. This hype raises expectations, creating excitement and a perhaps a degree of nervousness for first year students. But how does it compare with the reality of university life?

University wasn’t the experience I’d anticipated at all, and I had to adjust my expectations in my first year. I did more than survive, I enjoyed my course and went back to university for another one, and another one again. But I now realise going to uni at eighteen was a life transition I hadn’t planned for. I’d love to have had some guidance from someone who’d been there, done it and come out the other end.

So this is a brief guide to life at university. If you’re a first year, I hope some of it is useful to you. If it is, please share the link.

Tip 1: Outsource the cooking

If you’ve been living at home, you’ve probably been eating well thanks to the cooking skills of someone else. And now you’re cooking for yourself. Which should be easy, right? It looks easy. But preparing good meals quickly, day after day, requires skills you gain only by cooking, day after day, for months. Cooking is hard when you don’t really know what you’re doing.

On top of this, you have to share an eight-foot kitchen with seven other people who don’t really know what they’re doing either, though some of them pretend they do, while the sink has evolved into a freestyle crockery unit cum compost heap. It’s sub-optimal.

Go to the refectory; eat in town from time to time; cook for a friend and let them cook for you. Outsource the cooking whenever you can.

Tip 2: Do your washing up

Don’t leave it in the sink.

Tip 3: Your hall of residence doesn’t have to be your life

The way people talk, you might expect life in halls to be a year-long party.

Of the three halls I stayed in, some worked better than others. There were very funny times, and I met some vibrant personalities who I wouldn’t have got to know otherwise.

When people fell out, the issues from a clash between two different types of personality. When they tried to settle their differences directly, the resulting argument caused further hostility but that was relatively short-lived because people just had to get on with living, and they knew it. The tension eased but wasn’t forgotten. My tip: if there’s a clash of personalities, don’t get drawn in.

Tip 4: Make friends in the year above

The second years and third years have been through the the things you’re now going through. Not least, they have opinions on the lecturers, which they’ll probably be happy to share with you. Read more about this in my article on how to do well at university.

Tip 5: Don’t worry about living the life

One sunny afternoon outside the union bar, a coursemate, with a pint in his hand and a panama on his head, told me that he wasn’t sure if he was living university life enough.

But he so was.

I guess some people go to university with an idea of what their social life should be like. But you can spend too much effort thinking about that preconceived idea, instead of enjoying your life.

Tip 6: Stay close to friends back home

If your university is not in your home town, make time to catch up with old friends and share your experience of university life. Beyond family, old friends are your link with the life you led before university. On top of that, they know you really well. They may be able to help you establish perspective on recent experiences. That stuff that seems really dreadful right now? Might not seem so bad when you tell your mates.

Tip 7: Look to the future

Have an idea of what you want to do after university and take some steps towards it. It will motivate you, and provide context for everything that happens at university. I didn’t take any action about a career until my course had finished, at which point I wished I’d given myself a head-start.


To sum up, certain aspects of university life might be sources of stress or fear, and you might feel lonely. You may be able to get beyond these negative emotions by focusing on the opportunities that led you to university in the first place.

Some aspects of self-sufficiency will be stumbling blocks but you should be able to work around them.

Critically assess the messages you receive about ‘student life’, particularly if they don’t match those you started out with. They might be right, they might be wrong; take a position.

Maintain a wider perspective by communicating with friends back home and with more experienced members of your university community.


Alex Bailey went to university three times and lived to tell the tale.

Find out what he learnt about the academic side of university life by reading the sister article to his one, How To Do Well At University.


05. October 2015 by admin
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