Local Transport Today is the authoritative, independent journal for transport decision makers. Analysis, Comment & News on Transport Policy, Planning, Finance and Delivery since 1989.

Looking in the mirror

22 June 2018

The Transport Planning Society’s principles of members’ behaviour, covering matters such as integrity, clarity, and constructive challenge, is a laudable exercise in building the standing of the profession. In putting the principles forward, the society is acknowledging a problem, which its director of skills, Keith Buchan, articulates in this week’s Viewpoint: “Too often transport planners are called in late in the day – not to create solutions but to justify someone else’s already committed scheme. We are not treated as though we have principles.” 

All professions want to be held in high regard for their expertise, but the nature of that expertise varies. Some professions operate in highly technical and specialised fields, largely beneath the world of politics. The bridge engineer may have to work to a budget and concept chosen by political masters, but the design of the bridge relies on the engineer’s training and knowledge of maths and science. 

Transport planning is not like that. The planner operates at a level above that of designing bridges – one in which there are often multiple stakeholders, with conflicting and shifting objectives. Reconciling these different interests is, rightly, the job of politicians. There is no ‘correct’ high-speed rail network, no correct site for new airport capacity, and no correct transport plan for a city; merely different political choices.

In this context, planners play a vital support function, providing relevant analysis that may ultimately be instrumental to the decision or, at other times, merely one influence among many, or, worse, ignored altogether. The planner may long for the time, space and clean sheet of paper to prepare a plan, but the messy political process does not always oblige.   

Politics is about different points of view and  all sides in a debate seek evidence to support their cause. The fact that planners can readily produce such evidence is not necessarily a sign of something wrong with the profession. Different perspectives bring different insights. Moreover, there is ample room for disagreement within the planning sphere: data can be read in different ways, we lack a full understanding of complex systems, and, whereas the behaviour of a bridge tomorrow should be the same way as  today, the same cannot be said of travel behaviour, which is a moveable feast.

Head of Highways
Buckinghamshire Council
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Head of Highways
Buckinghamshire Council
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Kent County Council
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