TAPAS.network | 20 September 2022 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Time for transport people to walk the talk

Peter Stonham

TWO DAYS AFTER appointing her 15th Prime Minister, the Queen died. This issue of LTT is the first to appear after that very sad event - two weeks in which there have been myriad tributes to her dedication and character, and extensive reflections about the 70 years during which Queen Elizabeth II reigned, and the massive changes that have occurred over that time. 

The nation’s grief, and the degree of disorientation and recalibration that have taken place, have to some degree been captured in the transport field - most obviously in the arrangements for various stages in the carriage of the Queen’s body to its last resting place, the new King’s travels around the UK, the unprecedented journeys of world leaders to attend the funeral, and the huge crowds that have taken to the streets to show their respect, and of course to queue and walk for hours along the Thames to witness Her Majesty’s lying-in-state.

The relative ease of all of this travel activity has almost been taken for granted, compared with what would have been the equivalent facilities at the time of the funeral of the previous King, George VI, and the Queen’s accession to the throne in 1952. At that time, for example, international air travel was in its infancy and car ownership a rarity, not the norm.

It is, therefore a good time for the transport sector to reflect on its own journey over that long intervening period, and to take a hard look at some of the underlying issues and assumptions that have now become simply accepted as the obvious ways of doing things.

It’s a relatively small point, but this month’s European Transport Conference in Milan came just at this time of significant national importance. The September date for the ETC has in the past coincided with other similar traumatic events including the financial chaos of Black Wednesday in 1992, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, the 9/11 atrocity of 2001, and the collapse of Lehman Brothers that was at the heart of the global banking crisis of 2008.

An interesting development concerning the event this year was the lively discussions on social media about the travel arrangements of attendees, and in particular the choice by a group of UK participants to go overland by train rather than fly.

Just as the Queen is celebrated for living her life by example to the nation, can we note that transport professionals are now more conscious of the fact that they should strive to do the same?

The phrase ‘walk the walk’ springs to mind as a very suitable guiding principle. i.e. to do the things that one says one will do and expects others to do, rather than simply to ‘talk the talk’ about them.

Leading by example has not, to date, been as strong a principle in the world of transport professionals as it might usefully have been. Those in positions of authority and leadership of both practice and thinking should be encouraged to explore more carefully the locus, perspective and scope of the professional role that they as ‘transport planners’ should play – especially those who want to speak out on policy issues.

Right from the start, 25 years ago now, the founders of the Transport Planning Society – of which I was one – were aware of the need to bring together the civil engineers, spatial planners, transport operators and infrastructure managers from the four sponsoring institutions, and to take a wider view than any one of them could alone. And to add others with further horizons to the mix, be they technologists, environmentalists, social scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, health practitioners, data analysts and more.

The point was to enrich understanding and forge a new multi-dimensional collective seam of knowledge and understanding and develop some principles and agreed messages about what it is that should underpin the way we look at transport decision-making for the best interest of wider society.

It is easy to be concerned professionally with the detail of schemes, modes and particular transport needs and problem areas, and miss the bigger picture. In my view, the transport planner’s underlying perspective should always embrace the widest possible context – even if just being run as a thought- check alongside more specific tasks.

Transport, as much as almost any sector – and more than most – always needs to find the balance between potentially conflicting interests and outcomes, and between the desirable, feasible, responsible and sustainable. If ‘providing transport’ were once just a matter of hacking a path through the forest, or across the plain, or designing a machine to get from A to B, it certainly isn’t now. As transport planners we should intuitively realise that all actions have consequences, and first, second and third order effects – some of which may be very difficult to readily spot, and which go far beyond the immediate transport context.

The allocation of finite resources means not everyone can have everything they want, and where the overall benefits and costs fall is a decision someone in a position of power or authority, must make ( and justify). Now, more than ever before, we should recognise and acknowledge that the provision of transport is neither necessarily the only, or best, way to meet a need or solve a problem. And, in fact may well bring many new impacts, by making, or allowing, something bad, as well as good, to happen.

If recent years have taught us anything – the 70 of the Queen’s reign and 25 for the life of TPS – it is surely that it is simply not possible to identify, over a period of time, what the ‘most important issue’ has been, or what the ‘right solution’ will be, either in forming a personal or collective view. In looking forward, what we will need most as professionals is a flexible and resilient framework of thought and judgement that helps us best consider, analyse and address whatever is the scenario or problem we are examining at the time, in the broadest possible context and with the greatest facility to review and adjust. And, as individuals, to look at our own behaviours in that light.

To achieve a real demonstrable step forward in the profession’s position in the ongoing debate about both transport’s environmental and social impacts, it would also be valuable for there to be an acknowledgement that we are not the centre of the universe, but that we can demonstrate a special awareness of the consequences of our actions as people properly concerned with the ethics and impacts of them.

The other important element of self-awareness is meanwhile to have a heightened understanding that things may look different to other people from the perspective of their own lives and concerns and circumstances. Any instructions as to recommended behaviour that neglect these factors are likely to be regarded with suspicion if not resistance. After all, a true professional ethos must be seen as relevant to the whole of society and its needs. And embody an element of humility.

Whilst it is important to accept that those considering transport issues are not often themselves in a position of ultimate authority, we can certainly influence others by the mood music of not only our statements, but our actions – just as the Queen did. Her son, now the King, has seemingly also sought during his life to practice what he preaches – certainly in terms of eco-friendly agriculture and community development through both the Dutchy of Cornwall estate, and projects like Poundbury new town in Dorset and the Dumfries House and estate in Scotland.

King Charles will now probably need to be rather more circumspect as to his public comments and opinions, but few will forget what it is that he has been striving for most of his life. Activism can take many forms from preaching and campaigning to carefully constructing persuasive arguments. But as the Queen notably demonstrated, showing the way by example and demeanour has a special place in winning hearts and minds. It can apply in transport, as much as anywhere else. 

A personal statement

It occurred to me, having written the words above, that it could be appropriate to make some kind of statement on my own ‘walk the talk’ position. This is not to make any claim to be behaving better than anyone else, but to perhaps initiate what might be the language of any discussion about personal transport impacts.

So, to this end, I should like to record that I do not drive, or own a car, and am a car passenger relatively rarely. I have flown quite a lot (too much) in past years, but have resolved, since the pandemic, not to do so any more except on rare occasions. I walk as much as possible as both a mode of transport and a leisure activity, and shop locally on foot. I avoid buying products with unnecessary food miles where they are evident, and suggest the same concept might very usefully be applied to the labelling of clothing and other household items. I would be very happy indeed to accept an annual personal transport carbon allocation.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT853, 20 September 2022.

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