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Turning transport planning on its head: part I

October 25, 2016

By Keith Mitchell

Can we turn transport planning on it's head

Over the last few years, there has been a sea change in the level of political support for the funding of transport infrastructure, seen as a way of supporting economic growth, post financial crisis. Alongside this realisation came George Osbourne’s policy of devolving decision making to those city regions willing to take accountability for their own social and economic outcomes, thus reversing the counter-regional thinking that prospered in central government for the last few years.

Now we have Brexit, and a new chancellor who continues to see infrastructure investment as an important plank of policy—who seems to be prepared to loosen the chains of austerity to increase investment deliver it. However, Philip Hammond also wants to place industrial strategy at the heart of infrastructure policy, and to move away from a focus on the north of England, to one which is more inclusive across the wider regional base of the UK. Placing sub-national transport bodies on a statutory footing through the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill has created a new way of taking this agenda forward for transport infrastructure.

All this is happening at a time when there are major challenges for the transport planning profession. Not only is the political transport decision making process changing, this is happening at a time when there is unprecedented pressure on Local Authority finances, resources and skills. At the same time, the basis for investment decisions is moving away from a theoretical time savings analysis towards a better understanding of transport investment’s economic contribution to the delivery of jobs and homes; and we are also just beginning to comprehend the potential of disruptive technological changes in transport which could bring significant changes in the way we travel, and make our reliance on empirical transport analysis redundant. This is a quadruple whammy!

The transport planning profession is understandably concerned about these changes, and is worried that its traditional advisory role in planning is being usurped in favour of more pragmatic decision making focussed on political requirements to drive economic growth. Instead, we need a determined response from the profession—we need to turn transport planning practice on its head. We need to move away from being the grumpy transport planner in the corner - worried that our expert knowledge is being ignored—and move to the centre of decision making by seeing our profession as being ultimately collaborative with other professions and with politicians.

We need to use our understanding of movement, and its effects on transport systems, land uses, communities and economies, to help decision makers make judgements about investment decisions. We must pay more attention to the funding and financing of transport investment, and how successful delivery of the right transport and land use plans can support economic growth and thus play a role in supporting the viability of development—and of local government so that it can continue to fulfil the essential role it has at the heart of our society.

We need to see our role being about supporting the creation of healthy, prosperous cities and neighbourhoods—about people and places—and not about devising yet more complicated transport assessment and appraisal processes. Instead, we need to understand how to develop resilient projects that won’t get trapped in a time warp when the rest of the world is moving on through a rational and reasoned assessment of future scenarios aimed at achieving the desired outcomes.

Of course, analytical work will still have its place, but communication, collaboration, innovation and influencing should become of equal importance to the professional transport planner—our focus should be to contribute to the planning and design of places that people will want to live and work in the future—and to put our skills at the heart of decision making.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

  • Keith Mitchell

    Keith provides strategic advice relating to major infrastructure planning and transport decarbonisation. He has worked on a wide range of national infrastructure and planning projects in the UK, as well as in the European Union and Australia.

    Contact Keith
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