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Learning to go with the flow

Phil Goodwin says the Mainstreaming Smarter Travel conference offers a real opportunity to define where smarter choices thinking is going

Professor Phil Goodwin
Phil Goodwin is professor of transport policy at the Centre for Transport and Society, University of West of England, Bristol, and emeritus professor at University College London. He chairs a panel discussion on the opening day of Mainstreaming Smarter Travel.
Phil Goodwin is professor of transport policy at the Centre for Transport and Society, University of West of England, Bristol, and emeritus professor at University College London. He chairs a panel discussion on the opening day of Mainstreaming Smarter Travel.


Last year the theme of the increasingly important annual conference on smarter choices was ‘Rebooting’, and this year it will be ‘Mainstreaming’. This year several hundred specialists – practitioners and researchers – will be gathering in Manchester on the 3rd and 4th December to work out how to cope with the way ahead.

Norman Baker had agreed to do the keynote speech, as he did last year (though in the event he and his ministerial team were stranded on a station platform at Paddington). However, following Baker’s transfer to the Home Office, it will be new transport minister Baroness Kramer who will open the event.

Introducing the conference last year I wrote: “By every reckoning the current conditions ought to be favourable for a set of policy measures which offer a (relatively) easy, cheap and politically attractive way of improving travel opportunities.” And surely the same words apply today.

It is normal to give conferences some such title, with words like ‘launching’, ‘studying’, ‘implementing’, ‘understanding’, ‘changing’ and so on. They don’t always have a specific meaning, and maybe they don’t have to – they offer a way of branding an event, designing a leaflet and drawing attention. 

But on the face of it the move from ‘Rebooting’ to ‘Mainstreaming’ does suggest at least a symbolic transition from preparatory work to a great flood of activity. The last year has certainly seen the continuation of various funding streams intended to support smarter choices, and almost alone among transport policies there is simply no serious body of opposition. Smarter choices approaches are cheap, quite popular, remarkably effective, and contribute usefully both to specific local improvement of opportunities and quality of life, the attractiveness of local areas, non-transport objectives, especially health, and the highest level of policies on sustainability. 

Those who are familiar with experience and the research (which doesn’t include everybody who ought to be) are by now rather clear that there is a centrality, a comprehensiveness, about smarter choices which justify their inclusion at every level of strategy.

While the case for smarter choices seems clear, this year’s event still sets aside some time to discuss what this attractive phrase actually means. The first session of the conference is designed as a proper discussion among the participants rather than speeches from the platform – a welcome move as opportunities for debate are sadly rare in transport conferences. One session title offers, perhaps as a working definition, “Embedding smarter choices into general practice”.

Rory McMullan, the Mainstreaming Smarter Travel conference organiser, wrote to me stating: “Mainstreaming is one of those words which is often used about smarter choices, but not clearly defined, and I think your article might go some way to clarifying what we mean. How do we go about mainstreaming? How will we know if we have been successful? How does this fit in the overall context of transport policy and practice?”

Good questions, and not easy to answer. Let’s think about the word itself. It comes, of course, from basic physical geography; as small streams join larger ones, the flow of water becoming bigger and bigger, until they eventually become a river and flow to the sea. In simple terms, the main stream is the biggest one. Well that, in a sense, is a helpful starting point, and there is a salience in the metaphor because smarter choices are indeed not a single policy, but a wide and changing variety of different streams – information, advice, improvement in operations, opportunities, infrastructure, favouring walking, cycling, public transport, various forms of alternatives to travel including e-commerce – all contributing to a less car dependent culture. Multiple small streams contributing to a greater flow – that’s good.

But here is the reality check; we know perfectly well that smarter choices do not represent the biggest element of transport expenditure or effort. Saying smarter choices should be the mainstream of transport policy is, I think, a legitmate proposition. It needs argument, but it is not silly. Saying that smarter choices are already in that position is manifestly unrealistic. But words evolve, and it is worth recognising that the main use of ‘mainstream’, as a single word, is not about streams and water at all: it refers to cultures. 

I like the Wikipedia definition, which starts: “The mainstream includes all popular culture and media culture, typically disseminated by mass media. The opposite of the mainstream are subcultures, countercultures and cult followings” (It then goes on to a rather American-oriented discussion about whether it is a pejorative term or not, which we can leave for now). 

The point of the mainstream is its dominance, it is the prevailing wisdom, it is the zeitgeist. From that point of view, the culture of smarter choices exists, but there are great swathes of government who see it as an amusing diversion, a sop to sustainability, a good candidate for rather cheap ‘initiatives’, but simply not in the same class as the ‘real’ priorities of massive expansion of infrastructure for travel, and essentially disposable. 

In this context there is a peculiar sort of concept-blindness about smarter choices. Financial pressures on national and local government, as indeed on most of the public, mean that there is a need for reassurance that any substantial expenditure gives good value for money, and is in accord with the political and economic priorities of the time. 

There is substantial evidence that smarter choices give very good value for money indeed – better than most infrastructure projects. This is in line with a decade of discovery that small, local, cheap improvements to the quality and ease of transport (such as local safety schemes, area traffic management, reallocation of road capacity to walkers, cyclists and public transport, and improvements to the public realm in town centres and areas of concentrated shopping and leisure activity) typically give benefit-cost ratios (BCRs) in double figures, with benefits that may be 10 or 20 times as large as costs, or more, compared with ratios in the range 1-6 of even the best infrastructure projects. All this, you would think, fits well into the mainstream of transport appraisal and evaluation, but the reality still is the illusion that ‘revenue spending is bad, capital spending is good’, with burdens of proof on small effective policies, which are more stringent than is ever demanded on even the most implausible claims of infrastructure ‘contributing to economic growth’.

So what we have is the paradox that smarter choices are indeed in the mainstream of transport thinking culturally, but are still at the level of minority interest in the allocation of funds. They are in the vanguard, I would say, but do not yet constitute the mainstream.

Transport consultant Lynn Sloman, who describes the current situation as “chilly but with some grounds for optimism”, has started to put a figure to this (as she did for cycling, an important piece of evidence which underpinned the £10 per head per year which the Parliamentary Cycling Group formally recommended). 

Her interpretation of mainstreaming, expressed in this publication is particularly important. “In 2015, there will be £179m for smarter travel,” she says. “That should become a dedicated, on-going funding commitment, 40% revenue and 60% capital… It needs to increase by 25% per year for the next decade, with each pound from DfT matched by local authorities or their partners. That would give roughly £40 per citizen per year for sustainable travel. Only then will smarter travel really be mainstream.”.

That’s very cleverly pitched at the crux of political achievability and real impact, characteristic of Lynn’s targets. I’d vote for it. But we do need to think about the expenditures of billions, if the mainstream has millions.  

Find out more about the Mainstreaming Smarter Travel event on the 3-4 December 2013

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