Coffee in snow Creative commons image Credit: By Jon Curnow via Flickr under Creative Commons license Coffee and shops abandoned during snowpocalypse The heavy snowfalls of the past couple of winters cost the UK economy £280 million per day according to the Transport Secretary in 2011, Philip Hammond. Royal Sun Alliance in 2010 put the figure closer to £1.2 billion per day. The Federation for Small Business (FSB) estimated that 20 per cent, or 6.4 million staff, were unable to get to work - time they may not have been entitled to be paid for.

Small businesses are usually hit worst. Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight suggested that small businesses were likely to be more seriously affected as they have less staffing capacity to absorb the unplanned absence. Cash flow could be hit by delayed payments, which in the current tightening of the economy could cause businesses to fail.

However, it's not all bad news. Where some businesses like retail and construction are hit hard, the energy sector does well as we all try to keep warm; sales of warm clothing and footwear increase and there is additional spending on repairs as a result of accidents or structural damage. Although production may be down, overall GDP may not be that greatly affected. A survey of FTSE 100 companies showed that although 27 per cent reported short term negative impacts, in the long term they did not believe these negative impacts would be sustained. Interestingly, of the 73 per cent of these firms whose staff were absent, 39 per cent said that it did not matter as they were able to work remotely. 

So what is the true cost to the economy? For some businesses, staff can work remotely or altered working hours is an option. But this isn’t the case for all. Using the internet to work or shop is certainly one way to keep business moving and maintain retail sales. Yet in the run up to Christmas in 2010, retailers such as John Lewis had to bring forward their cut-off date for Christmas orders to clear the delivery backlog. So could the weather disruption be a ‘window of opportunity’ to implement new practices, not just during the disruption, but throughout the year? But what do you do if your trade can’t be run remotely? What policies and practice do you put in place to mitigate the effects of the weather?

These are some of the questions being asked in the Disruption project, a three-year project taking a fresh new look at people’s mobility, including their travel and use of computers, mobile phones and so on. The team are interested to hear your opinions and experiences during this time. In particular, they are keen to learn what practices you are adapting or abandoning due to the weather disruption, and once forced by the weather to adapt, what if any of these changes you will adopt permanently. 

The Disruption project involves seven universities including the Open University and is funded by the RCUK Energy Programme. The project looks at how travel practices are formed and directed by underlying societal factors. We argue that people’s travel behaviour is less fixed and routine than it is often considered to be. The project looks at the way people’s lives are frequently disrupted by a whole range of possible events, from family illnesses to volcanic ash clouds or snow. The insights that these disruptions provide can help reveal the kinds of changes, to transport and other policy sectors such as health, education and business that are needed to inspire and facilitate a shift to lower carbon travel. For more information please visit the Disruption website or contact Dr Helen Roby.