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Transport modellers should be ready to support decision-making

15 March 2020

This is a topic that has been exercising our community of transport modellers, asking questions such as: Will people change their mode preferences? Will we avoid crowded trains and prefer buses? Will we choose to return to the non-shared safety of an individually owned car?

Gregory D Erhardt, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Kentucky, is a good example. Writing in the March edition of the monthly newsletter of The International Professional Association for Transport & Health (IPATH), a platform for cross-disciplinary and multi-sector professionals working at the intersection of transport and health.

Assistant Professor Erhardt writes: 'Transportation modellers develop simulation models for the purpose of forecasting the effects of infrastructure investments or other changes to the transportation system. Faced with the sudden changes happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, our community is both searching for ways to help in the short-term and contemplating the long-term implications for our profession. Underlying both is the question: What is our role right now as transportation modellers? 

Quite simply, our work remains important, even if it sometimes takes a back seat to more pressing needs. That comes in two parts:

1. Transportation remains a core need. Even as many of us have begun to shelter in place over the past week, goods and service delivery continue and transit systems still operate. We cannot operate a health care system, a food distribution system, or other key needs without a functioning supply chain and without key workers able to get to their jobs. There are certain short-term needs that we may have a role in meeting as transportation professionals.

For example, our local school district recognises that school breakfast and lunch is a primary source of nutrition for about half of its students. To meet this need, they are distributing two boxed meals per day for any person under the age of 18 to every school bus stop—a transportation problem and a health problem. In the longer term, there remains a fundamental desire for in-person human interaction, much of which will go unmet as we socially distance ourselves.

I would not be surprised to see people ask whether we should continue to invest in transportation, whether we should let transit agencies go bankrupt, and whether we should all just continue to live in our bubbles. Facing big questions like that, it may be incumbent upon us to articulate not only the cost, but also the value of transportation.  

2. The professionalism we bring as travel modellers builds trust in public institutions. Our role is to provide credible and objective information in support of decisions about the transportation system. As we do that, not only do we hope for it to result in better decisions directly, but we aim to build trust in the institutions that make those decisions and that provide that information. As we face “truth decay”, (1), it's easy to become cynical or to think that what we do, won’t matter anyway. However, the slow work of providing and communicating a fair analysis, one project at a time, builds a reservoir of public trust that is critically important at a time of crisis. We can see this embodied by US civil servants such as Dr. Fauci (the US' leading expert on infectious diseases) and we just witnessed a case where the results of a model (2), clearly presented, resulted in a quick and important shift in public policy (3), You can imagine that these modellers worked in the background for years, but when the time came, they were ready and made their contribution.  

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