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Think net zero and Covid-19 are the biggest issues facing transport? Think again

Victoria Heald WSP
13 July 2021


What is largely invisible, has been featured in mainstream media of late, and can have a profound impact on the way that transport schemes are delivered? If your first thoughts to this question were either “net zero” or “Covid-19” then you would not be incorrect. However, there is something else facing the transport sector that is often overlooked, but is just as significant and pressing as the effects of climate change and the pandemic: unconscious bias. 

Unconscious bias, which is sometimes referred to as implicit bias, is the non-conscious opinions or views of a person, shaped by factors such as their background, culture, prior experiences and situational context, that involuntarily influence actions and decision-making.

Unconscious bias is pervasive in the transport sector, according to reports from Arup and Sustrans1, C40 Cities2, and Criado Perez3. The implication of this is that schemes are not being designed with everyone in mind and, as a result, create barriers to transport. Whilst some organisations have started to introduce steps, such as training, to help raise awareness of their employees’ biases, limited sector-specific guidance has been published on how transport professionals can overcome unconscious bias to create more inclusive transport systems. 

To try and better understand the impact of unconscious bias within the sector, along with practitioners’ attitudes to accessibility, I surveyed over 160 British-based transport professionals (economists, modellers, planners, project managers, etc) working across the private, public, and third sector. The key findings were:

  • Transport professionals experience barriers to accessing transport considerably less than transport users; only 32% of respondents experienced barriers to accessing transport at least once a week, compared to a reported 75% of transport users.4
  • There is a significant desire within the sector to deliver inclusive transport; 99% either strongly agreed or agreed that transport should be accessible to all users. 
  • Many transport professionals do not routinely contemplate the accessibility needs of certain minority groups; 34% considered the needs of the young, the elderly, disabled people or ethnic minorities less than once per week, whilst 8% had never taken any of these group’s needs into consideration. 
  • The majority deemed transport organisations to already be diverse; nearly three-fifths of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that their organisation had a diverse workforce across all levels.

Speaking to representatives from a range of transport and equalities groups as part of this research, it was evident that the daily actions and decisions made by transport professionals have a profound impact on the way that people travel, yet a lack of awareness, insight and representation in the transport sector can perpetuate unconscious biases.

To try and better understand the impact of unconscious bias within the sector, along with practitioners’ attitudes to accessibility, I surveyed over 160 British-based transport professionals (economists, modellers, planners, project managers, etc) working across the private, public, and third sector

Based on all of the feedback received, measures tailored to the sector were established and recommended; acting as a guide to help individuals, organisations and the sector tackle unconscious bias in transport. The recommended measures included:

  • Reconsidering the delivery of unconscious bias training; whilst training typically helped to raise awareness, it is not enough to eradicate bias. Training should, where possible, be in-person, interactive and relevant to the decisions that transport professionals make; this would provide training that is both value for money and of benefit to organisations and transport users.
  • Delivering user-experience sessions; having a lived-experience of the range of issues that transport users face can give practitioners a greater, longer-lasting appreciation of the needs of those that they are delivering for, ensuring that barriers are consciously considered and, where possible eradicated in the initial design stages.
  • Establishing and maintaining links with transport user groups; engaging with, listening to and involving transport users from project inception would reduce the amount of abortive time spent redesigning or retrofitting schemes, helping to reduce user complaints, minimise spend, and within the private sector, maximise profit.
  • Changing recruitment practices; diverse workforces bring about different perspectives and experiences, meaning that the varying needs and requirements of the population are more likely to be consciously considered. Where not done so already, more inclusive recruitment practices, such as blind shortlisting, inclusive job descriptions and wider searches, should be conducted.
  • Developing a sector-wide census; having a greater understanding of the demographic of the sector would not only better inform targets, wider policies, and chart diversity progress, but could show the profession to be more transparent, encouraging underrepresented groups to consider a career in transport if positive changes were seen to be being made.

These measures are not exhaustive and a ‘one-size fits all’ approach is not always appropriate, but the measures recommended are rather a starting point to help increase understanding and elicit constructive step-change. Those delivering schemes in the transport sector face complex, multi-faceted challenges related to net zero, and more recently the pandemic on a daily basis. Tackling unconscious bias will require immense and continual time, effort, and commitment from all areas of the sector in order to create change, but transport users, particularly those in the minority, will no-doubt reap the benefits.

Victoria Heald is a transport planner at WSP, and was awarded ‘Bursary of the Year’ by the Transport Planning Society for her recent research on transport accessibility. You can read her paper in full here: https://tinyurl.com/zjyfeh4f

  1. Arup & Sustrans. (2019) Inclusive cycling in cities and towns. 
  2. C40 Cities. (2019) Gender inclusive climate action in cities: how woman’s leadership and expertise can shape sustainable and inclusive cities.
  3. Criado Perez, C. (2019) Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men.
  4. European Commission. (2014) European’s satisfaction with urban transport. Report number: 382b.
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