Transport is changing, and how we communicate must do so too

As SYSTRA celebrates 50 years of operating in the UK, we look to what the next 50 years might hold, and how to communicate the value of transport investment.

This article was first published as a Viewpoint piece in Local Transport Today, 23 November 2018

This has been a year of historical landmarks: 100 years since the armistice that ended the Great War and 100 years since women in the UK were first given the vote. While not quite as momentous on a global scale, 2018 also marked 50 years since SYSTRA began delivering transport planning in the UK.

Big anniversaries of all kinds invite us to take stock, to look at how the world has changed around us, what we have learned, and to speculate about what it all means for the future. And for transport planners, that future is looking more unpredictable, more riddled with uncertainties than perhaps ever before.

Fifty years ago the Paris riots were boiling up, the anti-war movement was shaking governments, and all of society seemed to be in a state of revolutionary turmoil. By contrast, the world of transport planning hadn’t joined the party. The issues facing planners in 1968 and the decades that followed were really just versions of the same questions faced by their predecessors 50 years earlier. Technologies advanced and demand increased, but the fundamentals stayed essentially the same: how to move more people to the same sorts of jobs on the same modes of transport more safely and efficiently. 

But that is no longer the case. The technological and social changes that planners are facing in 2018 are radically new and are affecting not just one aspect of travel but the role of transport at its deepest level. We are seeing the end of a familiar and well understood transport ecology and the birth of something new. And ecological change is by definition radically unpredictable because a change to one thing triggers unexpected changes in another, creating non-linear feedbacks that amplify over time. Take the emergence of Mobility as a Service or MaaS – digitally planned and managed inter-modal travel, for example. It is a social change that has grown organically, driven by users and entrepreneurial service providers, disrupting conventional travel patterns. But MaaS is still in its infancy. As users become more accustomed and discriminating, their needs, demands and expectations will change. This in turn will drive the development of new and different technologies that will affect how and why people use transport. And that is before we even factor in dramatic technological advances such as viable autonomous vehicles. What happens then? We should expect much more than the simple replacement of one kind of car for another, that’s for sure. Autonomous driving could act as a supercharger to current trends from MaaS to car sharing but it will also send shock waves far beyond. Widely available autonomous vehicles are likely to reduce the demand for parking infrastructure, for example. This is good news for those who deplore the effects that the domination of the car has had on our towns and cities, but bad news, perhaps, for local government that depends on the car parking revenue.

There could be good news for the environment. Autonomous and electric vehicles, mobility as a service, and car pooling schemes can all be carbon- efficient and are likely to get more so, but it isn’t a free lunch. Revenue from fossil fuel taxes is going to have to be replaced somehow; new infrastructure is going to be expensive. From the taxman’s point of view petrol and diesel have certain well-defined virtues, chiefly the ease of collecting the tax and the difficulty of avoiding it. But how could tax be applied on electricity as fuel? And what level of revenue could reasonably be expected from an electric ‘fuel duty’ given that the negative externalities, the pollution from electric vehicles, are so much less?

All of these unknowns (and these are just some of the known unknowns) make life awkward for anyone whose job it is to peer into the future. But this is not a counsel of despair. There is an effective solution to the planning problem that is responsive to all these challenges, but it requires a change in attitude and perspective that is as radical as the challenges it seeks to address. We have to retire the mental habits that have been so effective in addressing the complex but limited and well-defined planning questions of the past and learn to ask new questions. Not how can we mend what we have, but what kind of world do we want? 

The old ecology is dying away, but instead of waiting to see what springs up out of the disturbed ground, we have the chance to plant the garden the way we want it to be. It may be our only chance. And the tools to do this are already available: scenario planning.

Scenario planning creates a choice of complex dynamic models of different transport ecologies. 

Policy-makers can then use these to drive forward planning decisions based on their vision of the future, connecting transport to broader social policy such as generating economic growth, minimising exclusion and maximising access and inclusivity.

The UK is leading the way with scenario planning, along with countries such as New Zealand, the Netherlands and Australia. SYSTRA has shown how effective scenario planning can be and how it is, in fact, the only planning tool that has the power to address the unprecedented challenges that the UK is facing. But we are going to need something else as well, something that the transport planning industry has not always been celebrated for: good communication.

Communication not just with clients and within the industry, but with the public too. Do we really know enough about what people want and need from their transport services? Does the public understand how much is at stake and what the opportunities are? In recent months there has been an explosion of interest in the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans, a problem that has been well known to experts for decades, and with it an upsurge in the political will to do something about it. Where did this interest come from? Largely from one man, Sir David Attenborough, because he had the ability and the platform to communicate a complex problem simply and lucidly. We are living in the YouTube age and we have to learn to communicate in the way this generation best understands, not just through numbers, graphs and dense policy documents. We need to find our David Attenborough.