TAPAS.network | 4 October 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Who is driving transport’s future now?

Peter Stonham

CURRENT DEVELOPMENTS in the arena of British transport policy could well be responsible for a few heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. For many in the transport planning world, long cherished notions of what constitute obvious steps towards a better more sustainable transport system appear to be under serious attack.

Reversals of policy commitments on decarbonisation, local freedoms to reduce speeds on roads, control of traffic in local neighbourhoods and prioritisation of walking and cycling, might seem to some to be the end of civilisation as they know it. And even more frustratingly, there isn’t an easy single target for who is behind this pathway to Armageddon.

The Conservative Government’s bid to court the motorists’ vote is an obvious development of course, spelt out very clearly in its new Plan for Drivers policy document. To treat that as the only cause of the seeming change of mood would be easy, but would not explain it all. The abandonment of the Greater Cambridge congestion charge plan can be laid clearly at the door of the local authorities involved, one controlled by Labour, another by Liberal Democrats, and the third a shared administration. Withdrawal of the Low Traffic Livable Neighbourhoods in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was meanwhile a policy platform of Mohammad Lutfur Rahman, the directly elected mayor of the borough, who stood for the Aspire party in 2022. Prospective abandonment of the northern section of HS2 — on which the position remained unclear as this editorial was being written — is apparently being urged upon the Prime Minister by Andrew Gilligan, the fan of walking, cycling and buses, who was the right hand man on transport to Boris Johnson, who pursued positive policies on them as both Mayor of London and Prime Minister.

Rather than looking at the individual policy reversals, it might be more helpful to examine broader issues that seem to lie behind the current perceived back-pedalling on all the avowedly progressive parts of transport policy.

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Rather than looking at the individual policy reversals, it might be more helpful to examine broader issues that seem to lie behind the current perceived back-pedalling on all the avowedly progressive parts of transport policy.

A core topic to consider is the often discussed tendency towards an erosion of the democratic process and government seeking to write the script for everyone. This is what seems to have prompted a group of campaigners for walking and cycling to issue a press release in advance of the Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, headed with the claim ‘the Government is denying people the choice on how they travel’.

The six cycling and walking organisations lambasted the expected unveiling by the government of a ‘Plan for the Motorist’ at the conference in Manchester. They said it denies people their choice, health and freedom. In a reversal of the argument that it is motorists who are having their freedoms curtailed, Bikeability Trust, British Cycling, Cycling UK, Living Streets, Ramblers and Sustrans, said that instead of giving people real choice in how they live their lives, the Government’s approach ignored possibilities for cheap, reliable and sustainable travel, leaving many with one default option: to drive. They say, the government should be giving people ‘more opportunities to live their lives responsibly,’ not robbing them of options.

Others campaigners quickly lighted upon suggestions that the Government was preparing to add restrictions on what speed limits can be imposed by local authorities alongside the Prime Minister’s recent instigation of a review of Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes. This was the removal of proper democratic freedom of action by individual councils, they claimed.

Intriguingly, in Wales, a similar sort of thinking has been applied in a completely different way — with the Government there under attack for forcing a blanket 20mph speed limit upon all urban areas, restricting the ability of local authorities to make their own decisions about what speeds are appropriate on which roads. That policy has already led to a petition for its withdrawal signed by approaching 450,000 people.

All this position-taking lies in the realm of politics — not technically-driven engineering or science. We do not yet live in a world where a prescriptive analysis of what is right and wrong, or good or bad, is determined by one set of sensible people who have done all the necessary thinking on behalf of everyone else, and therefore should be the ones to decide what is best for them all.

In our mostly democratic society, many things are accepted to be ‘a matter of opinion’, and up for debate and persuasion of the uncommitted to follow a particular point of view or policy path. If the system works effectively, the majority view should prevail — and for those who want to sign up the majority, there is work to be done in convincing them to come on board.

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Many things are accepted to be ‘a matter of opinion’, and up for debate and persuasion of the uncommitted to follow a particular point of view or policy path. If the democratic system works effectively, the majority view should prevail

In the past, the words that might have been used to describe the efforts of those who believe they are intrinsically right, and wish to create a supportive environment for their approach, were ‘social engineering’. This term has been taken to mean top-down efforts to influence particular attitudes and behaviours amongst the general population — most often hitherto undertaken by governments, but also now carried out by media, academia and those with particular beliefs — in order to produce a desired conformity of opinion.

Now, a slightly different terminology and approach is in vogue, variously called ‘social acceptance and societal readiness levels’, still predicated on a belief that a logical and sensible way forward should inevitably be adopted by most people based on its intrinsic merit, but seeking to codify how far that state has been achieved.

For instance, social change and behavioural change are seen as critical to delivering effective decarbonisation- as much, or more so than by the adoption of new technology- through achieving substantial steps to a stable environment more quickly. Understanding Societal Readiness Levels is part of that formula.

The thinking has some challenging illogicalities to address, however. For example, whilst a majority seem to be in favour of action on climate change, and understand that human action is mainly or partly responsible for it, that does not mean that as individuals people will readily accept the implications of them making that change. The Societal Readiness Thinking applied here leads to the suggestion that this resistance stems from the fact that people are imprisoned by mobility systems that leave them very little real choice over how to travel.

It is one way of looking at the issue, but must acknowledge that it is not the way many people perceive things. The message that the Government is currently presenting, for example, depicts a rather different landscape. It is anchored on individual freedom of choice, not collective benefit. Philosophically, people are offered the opportunity to make ‘life choices’ , and will do so even though there are wider consequences which perhaps they prefer to ignore.

The societal readiness proponents see a route forward by the offer of more attractive solutions to people’s mobility needs, and by offering citizens genuine participation in how the mobility systems we all use are created and deployed.

Not as explicit and prescriptive, but possibly more useful in the current environment, are concepts for transport policy-making like ‘Vision and Validate’. This is explored in more detail than hitherto in this issue, in an important contribution exploring thinking on the subject by Professor Peter Jones. It is his belief that more attention to scenario and option development is key to determining transport policies that are more inclusive and broadly accepted by the general population.

It has to be acknowledged, nonetheless, that the Government’s latest take on transport policy leaves transport planners in a tough place. It doesn’t look as though the much-delayed Local Transport Plan guidance from the DfT will be coming to their rescue by appearing any time soon, if at all. But work on shaping transport policies must go on. For the moment, their skills can be very helpful in descriptive and presentational work on the realities of the current transport situation, and on the assessment and appraisal of different policy choices, though it is not any longer going to be their own visions and prescriptions that define the way forward.

A new battleground seems to be emerging between those who believe policies should be created by the best brains and then promulgated to the masses, and those who seek the emergence of acceptable policies by a process of exploration of shared aspirations, and an understanding of the different trade-offs that any policy decisions are generally confronted with.

A fundamental point that is apparent from exploring the landscape of transport in the modern world is that it is just a part of a bigger political and societal game. There seem to be two choices: going through highly stressful and inherently conflict-ridden processes to find the best ‘solutions’, or allowing different groups of people in different situations and locations and at different times to find their own routes forward. At least in the latter case it keeps the conflicts local and manageable rather than general and potentially explosive.

A strategic overall position might be seen as desirable, but probably not either feasible or sensible.

A transport strategy, or even a national economic strategy, may not, in any case, survive the strategies that governments, and thus political parties, need to maintain their existence. The imperatives of the immediate will rarely be trumped by the thoughtfulness and desirability of a considered long-term view.

Not so long ago, transport professionals would bemoan the fact that their subject was not getting the public and political attention it deserved. It certainly is now. But whether that is a good thing or not is another matter of opinion.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT877, 4 October 2023.

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