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No divine right for transport planners…

Transport planning is an industry short on confidence and short on time to respond to the challenges it faces. But this need not be the case, says James Gleave

James Gleave
26 May 2017
James Gleave
James Gleave


Modern transport planners are not just the sum of their technical skills, or the tools at their disposal. They are not even the sum of their own experience. They are the sum of more than 50 years of hard work, research, innovation and the experiences of many hundreds of thousands of planners and engineers. 

Transport planning itself has found its way in an ever-changing world. The rise of the motor vehicle, the emergence of supercomputers, oil shocks, and the re-emergence of sustainable transport have shaped and re-shaped approaches to planning, design and delivery. Regardless of the obstacles, transport planning has always found a way. 

Transport planning is perfectly poised to take advantage of the opportunities ahead of it, and the opportunities posed by change and innovation in other sectors

But like other professions, it has no divine right to exist. And the challenges of an industry in a rut are numerous. Over-reliance on what government says to set the direction of how we do our work at all, endless arguments over structures of decision-making, uncertainty of what the future may hold. 

All the while, the world of technology and its promises of disruption –not just to transport, but to transport planning itself – wait in the wings. When the likes of Google can build a city model from scratch, and sell it as a service, within 18 months, you see what we are up against. To borrow a Silicon Valley phrase, disrupt, or be disrupted.

Transport planning is an industry short on confidence and short on time to respond to the challenges it faces. But this need not be the case. 

Enablers of change

Transport planners at their best are enablers of change. Just think about the different perspectives that we need to integrate within our current decision-making frameworks. Economics, spatial planning, cultural attitudes, engineering (and not just civil), social change, operations and services. All are critical influencers of the art of transport planning.

Transport visions

Transport planners play a key role in integrating these perspectives to develop a cohesive transport vision. Our toolkit, for all of its flaws, has been meticulously developed and refined, and is excellent at what it does. Transport planning is perfectly poised to take advantage of the opportunities ahead of it, and the opportunities posed by change and innovation in other sectors. 

Transport planning is, in many ways, reflective of its heritage. Planning to move physical things, between physical places, on physical infrastructure. But to see transport as just a physical act is not the whole story. Travelling is a whole experience, with impacts and consequences far outside of its simple remit. We acknowledge that this happens, and include some bits and pieces of it in our decision-making. But we don’t reflect this social in our practice.

But it needs to change its approach, and its perspective on why it exists. Arguably, this goes to the core of why are transport planners still here. As with any change, it is huge. It is a fundamental challenge, and many will (and do) disagree about the need for it. But as with any change, it needs to be grounded in a new purpose – a new reason for transport planners to exist. The transport planners of the future need to:

  • Not predict the future of transport. Transport is primarily the result of other activities. Those activities are at best unpredictable in the short-term. Yet many transport decisions are based upon a need to have a prediction, and often based upon a long timescale. Such predictions, and the methods used to derive them, need to be treated with the scepticism that they deserve. They are meant as an aide to decision-making, not as a crystal ball-gazing exercise.  Exploring the uncertainty of the world surrounding those predictions makes for better decision making.
  • Be enablers, integrators, and innovators. We don’t just enable people to get to work, or freight to be delivered. We enable new solutions to be developed, and adapted to transport challenges. We don’t just integrate transport. We integrate new skillsets into the profession, to add to our collective. We innovate because we can’t afford to not to. Our transport challenges aren’t going away, and the traditional solutions are not working.
  • Be open by default, not when they choose. Our challenges are common by their very nature. Every profession, even civilisation itself, thrives on sharing, cooperating, and building common tools to meet grand challenges. Even, for the greater good. Open data, open source technology, open innovation – none of this is new. Let’s generate new tools and solutions collaboratively, and compete with each other on areas of added value and knowledge, and not on proprietary systems.
  • Be data informed, not data driven. We are blessed to have a data-rich industry. Collecting and analysing data is almost religious to us. But data is not everything. Data gives evidence, but it does not bestow insight, nor does it quantify subtle nuances that impact upon the traveller experience. Data is also incomplete, and badly lacking in some areas of transport. Data is the future, and lots of it, but using it wisely even more so.
  • Fail fast, and learn faster, and do it responsibly. Doing so is a part of learning about what works, and doesn’t. It’s hard, but lets embrace it. So long as we learn the lessons quickly, and it is not done in a really stupid context. Taking reckless risks with people’s safety just for ‘innovation’ is a fool’s game.
  • Justifies his or her tools, but doesn’t treat them as sacrosanct. Our tools are not the only ones that can get the job done. What’s more, if we are blind to the value of competing tools, someone else will not be. Open source or free does not necessarily imply a lower quality of product. And our current tools did not just appear.

The great thing about the future is that it is what you make of it. Transport planning has huge opportunities It is time to debate vigorously, action quickly, and share learnings of this new world of transport planning. That is my intention, and I very much look forward to joining that discussion at Modelling World.

James Gleave is Founder at Transport Futures

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