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Innovation in transport isn’t just about installing new technology

‘Creative disruption’ may be re-shaping mobility, but transport planners must also innovate new ways of building consensus among public stakeholders on the need for change, writes Mark Frost

15 June 2021
The humble wand has been effectively deployed to create safe space for people using bikes
The humble wand has been effectively deployed to create safe space for people using bikes

It was a great honour to be elected chair of the Transport Planning Society (TPS) in March of this year. As I settle into the role there is an inevitable period of reflection as to what the focus should be for the society over my two-year term. I looked back at our founding statement from 1997 for inspiration and it didn’t disappoint: 

“TPS exists to facilitate, develop and promote best practice and innovation in transport planning and provide a focus for dialogue between all those engaged in it whatever their background.”

As a statement of intent that seems as relevant a mission now as ever, with those references to explore opportunities around ‘innovation’ and ‘whatever their background’ jumping out at me as being particularly apposite for further exploration at the current time.

Societal change

It is often said that the pace of change seems to be speeding up - and at no time has that seemed as true as now. No industry has arguably been more deeply impacted at a fundamental level by the forces for societal change unleashed across the last 12 months than ours. Innovation in how we plan and deliver our services is therefore necessary and indeed unavoidable - and that’s before we even get to the need to respond to the air quality, climate and ecological emergencies that so many local areas have all declared in recent years.

The term ‘innovation’ is often used as shorthand for the application of new technology for the purposes of improving the actual function of moving people and goods around – autonomous cars, micromobility solutions, wayfinding apps etc. Whilst this is where a lot of creative disruption no doubt occurs, for us as a sector the focus needs to be as strong on innovating how we build consensus among our public stakeholders on the need for change.

The other day I stumbled on an excellent Connected Places podcast1 with Daniel Deparis, head of urban mobility at Mercedes Benz. Surprisingly for someone with innovation in his remit, he observed that “we need to scale solutions of today before we start talking about the next thing”. He also noted that “building a community and taking people with us on this journey and to involve them from the beginning before the building of new things is as complicated as putting the technological solutions in place”.

Daniel’s words chimed with me, possibly given my recent coalface experience as a local authority officer implementing schemes under the Active Travel Fund. This made me acutely aware that the limits to radically changing our public spaces to deliver healthier and more sustainable futures weren’t technological, financial or even political – they were all societal.

One of the most eye-opening ‘new’ disruptive technologies in terms of impact from the last 12 months has been the humble traffic cone and wand – bits of tech that have been deployed overnight, changing acres of urban carriageway lanes for cars into public space for people. The technology may not be new but the innovation certainly is – the way changes are being deployed at pace while engaging the public in the process. Clearly, the pace hasn’t delivered perfect results everywhere, and more needs to be done to explain the benefits of this shift in road space allocation to communities. But, as a statement of intent on how we can use our cities differently and deliver changes quickly, I’ve not seen any other technology come close.

Innovation is most urgently needed in the way we articulate to an often sceptical, and sometimes deeply cynical, audience the changes we are trying to implement and how this will deliver a better future for them and the next generations. 

The recent Royal College of Arts project on ‘our future towns’ (co-sponsored by TPS) offers some very valuable lessons on how constructive community engagement can offer potential solutions. I would welcome further dialogue with members on where other best practice in engagement and population level behaviour change may lie, with a view to TPS helping to facilitate a conversation around the ‘state of the art’ in this vital area of our work over the next couple of years.

Constructive challenge

For CIHT and TPS, Professor Glenn Lyons recently completed a 10-year review of transport planning competences. At the heart of his recommendations was the idea of being more open about the level of uncertainty inherent in our work and a need for the sector to develop a culture of ‘constructive challenge’. As one stakeholder put it, you need to be “giving the best advice you can, even if the client does not want to hear it”. There is a growing consensus that with planning and managing transport networks the status quo is no longer desirable. We must address the climate emergency, clean our air, improve safety after a long stagnation in reducing collisions, and deliver healthy public spaces that encourage more physical activity and are conducive to people living long and happy lives. Sometimes the schemes we choose to prioritise score poorly against that framework, and as transport planners it should be our job to point that out in a clear and compelling way. 

Ultimately, these decisions will always be political, but we have a duty to ourselves and the next generation to ensure that the potential implications of decisions taken are fully understood by all stakeholders. The system of funding and appraisal is now slowly starting to recognise it needs to change, but as noted in Professor Lyon’s review, the behaviour of transport planners is something that could adapt far quicker than the framework in which we operate - should we find the collective will to do so.

Whatever our background

Innovation is most urgently needed in the way we articulate to an often sceptical, and sometimes deeply cynical audience, the changes we are trying to implement and how this will deliver a better future for them and the next generations

TPS is the perfect vehicle to travel together in to explore our common challenges and opportunities “whatever our background”. While the joy and strength of our industry is that we draw on a very wide range of expertise, from engineers to psychologists through marketing professionals, too many of our backgrounds probably look a lot like me – white, male and something like middle class. Group think is no solution to the challenges we face and we must improve actual diversity, diversity of thought and inclusion in the industry - and I’m delighted that this forms the theme of our Transport Planning Day campaign for this year. 

I must also thank all those companies who have rushed to support and sponsor our campaign year - the level of support to our call for sponsors in these uncertain times was hugely motivating for the TPS and shows what an important topic this is for the sector. This bodes well for our ability to progress genuine changes in the coming years for the better. Do contact us if you would like to get involved in what is fast becoming an important date in the diary for collective reflection across our industry.

I look forward to working with my excellent board, and indeed all TPS members, on these crucial challenges, and no doubt many others, over the next couple of years. 

Mark Frost is chair of the Transport Planning Society

1 Connected Places Podcast – Episode 11 – where next for urban mobility? 

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