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Driving behavioural change and delivering a modal shift in mobility

August 16, 2023

By Vaughan Anderson

How can we address connectivity and mobility challenges across the UK while achieving our climate goals?

Transforming how people and places connect is central to how we create the society of the future. The first steam trains brought the UK’s cities together along with unprecedented geographic and social mobility. How we move has always defined how we live, work, and build connections.

Now, solving our connectivity and mobility challenges is vital to achieving our climate goals. This is an important focus for my colleagues and me at Stantec. With leading universities and behavioural change specialists, we have been researching readiness for change in our communities. This includes the concept of ‘bridging the gap’ to net zero through incremental steps in modal shift.

But it also goes beyond carbon. We need to improve social outcomes, community cohesion, and health and well-being. We must do this in a way that reduces inequality of access and creates opportunities for communities across the country. From commutes to cargo, to transform society we need to achieve a modal shift in our mobility choices. In dense urban spaces, we must move away from cars towards active travel and public transport options. Delivering the behavioural shift we need against a backdrop of entrenched resistance will require integrated expertise and a collaborative approach.

Avoiding ‘carmageddon’

At the heart of any approach to improving mobility and connectivity is the question of the car. For many, the private car continues to represent freedom, choice, and convenience. But it is also responsible for many wider social issues. These include pollution, traffic, and space used for parking instead of landscaping. Dangers to pedestrians and other road users are also made worse by intense car use. According to Government estimations, more than 55 percent (74,000) of total road casualties in 2022 were car occupants.

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Avoiding ‘carmageddon’ is something everyone can agree on.

Driving uptake is steadily decreasing in younger demographics. But factors like a lack of public transport provision continue to make the car a favoured option. The private car in some form is certainly here to stay. So we must accept this while still making progress with wider, healthier, better mobility options.

Look at yourself and make that change

A modal shift from cars to active travel and public transport must be founded on the principle of people choosing to change. We need communities to adapt their existing behaviours and proactively choose more socially conscious and smarter mobility solutions. How do we do it? Make the alternatives more appealing and convenient.

At a large scale, this may mean faster and more reliable train lines that don’t just radiate from London. Working with infrastructure delivery companies our industry should certainly influence this supply. We can also drive understanding and intensification of development in strategically well supported locations. The Oxford to Cambridge arc is a good example. At a local level, we must also look for ways to facilitate and drive adoption of the ‘15-minute city’ model. At Linmere, we have planned neighbourhoods that offer a mix of uses. These include social, working, recreational, and living near each other to cater for the daily needs of residents. This included layering and co-locating land uses closer together, providing better quality treed streets, and routes for walking and cycling along with better signage that clarifies travel times. It could be more accessible bus timetables or pedestrian routes through safe green spaces, rather than roadsides or underpasses. 

All of this begins in policy. Working with Suffolk County Council we developed a new methodology to identify a user-led approach to streets. We created guidelines for street design, which are embedded in policy. This ensures streets prioritise active travel over the car and segregate the two when possible. In Ashford for the Otterpool Park Garden Town, we created mobility hub design guidelines. These help in the relegation of personal vehicle travel to a secondary option behind better mobility options. The guidelines drive better options and support for public transport, shared e-bikes, cargo bikes, and more. This allows for a community enriched with green spaces where people can lead healthy, active, and sustainable lifestyles.

Wayfinding has a key role to play too. Our masterplanners and graphic designers are working together on a vision for a new community in Sherford. The wayfinding strategy recognises both current and future residents and visitors. It is an approach that moves beyond simple, directional information to experiential signage. This highlights how active travel can support exploration, learning and interaction, while using a signage system suitable and accessible for all users at all times. An integrated app works alongside the physical signage to provide real time step/walking tracking, active travel opportunities and information, interactive maps, and QR codes. This allows users to view facts, conservation data, community news, retail information, and other details. The strategy looks to embed active travel and healthy lifestyles, but it also reinforces a sense of ownership and identity for residents of Sherford. It connects them and fosters pride in where they live.

Many organisations and groups working together has been key to all these projects. We needed developers, local authorities, national government, communities, and expert bodies to come together. This is vital for discussion and debate of acceptable, deliverable options. It’s key for the community and those who would build and manage it.

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We need to bring stakeholders together to spur meaningful change.

Integration, integration, integration

This is the moment when we can add real value and draw on the depth and breadth of expertise within our teams. We can bring about true modal shift in transport by sharing the knowledge and talent of masterplanners, landscape designers, architects, urban planners, and technical teams, from engineers to transport consultants.  

By consulting and working with local communities, connecting with stakeholders, building trust and understanding, as our teams have done over decades, we can affect bespoke but meaningful changes to benefit communities. 

Meanwhile, the ingenuity of designers and technical specialists can deliver connected, creative solutions. These are ideas that are attractive to the people who use them. Masterplanners and landscape designers embed solutions into the existing environment—urban or otherwise—to create adaptable plans that can flex as behaviours, technology, demographics, lifestyles, or land uses change. To do this, the development industry and the consultants working with it need to keep abreast of research and data emerging from these fields. We need to work with doctors prescribing active travel and with charities pushing for road safety. For a truly seamless process, all these teams must be integrated. Their knowledge should be weaved together from the earliest stages of planning a project. 

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Better design leads to fairer roads and safer communities.

Behavioural change often happens gradually. Then all at once. Modal shift will also be a self-perpetuating, virtuous cycle: more users of public transport make services more viable, increasing frequency and reliability. More pedestrians using a local high street will boost local business and bring more shops to meet demand.

The first stage is acknowledging the broad coalition necessary to achieve this ambition of ‘bridging the gap’ through incremental steps. We need to bring parties together. We must engage communities. And specialist teams must be integrated to make the most of the experience and knowledge in our industry.

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  • Vaughan Anderson

    As an urban design director, Vaughan is an urban planning and design professional, leading complex mixed-use projects. He designs strategic masterplans, urban regeneration, and town center renewal—and prepares design codes and development briefs.

    Contact Vaughan
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