TAPAS.network | 31 October 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Lessons from the Summit: thinking beyond the transport mantra

Peter Stonham

TRANSPORT PROFESSIONALS, whose role is essentially that of advisers and experts rather than decision makers, have to a significant extent become unrealistic, and perhaps complacent, in the degree to which they expect those with the authority to implement the ideas which the professionals believe are appropriate.

The concepts of professionals operating in an echo chamber, with groupthink and idealism are among those often mentioned, as indicating a degree of out-of-touchness and self-righteousness. This may well work fine when there is a collective agreement about things, but not well at all when exposed to other people’s realities and priorities.

Such professional positions also overlook the practical politics that elected members of both Parliament and local authorities have to grapple with when pursuing projects and ideas. And the ultimate need for them to reflect or win over the wider community if they are to effectively implement plans and programmes for transport and not see them fail the test of democratic determination.

These external realities are unfortunately not often enough on the agenda of professional meetings and discussions, which tend to address issues in language and paradigms that are familiar to those directly involved in the subject matter, but would be alien to most other people.

The annual Local Transport Summit is one event which avowedly seeks to examine the current landscape in broader terms, and bring into the discussion those with different perspectives that can help jolt the mindsets of those who are mainly working within the existing professional and governmental structures.

This year’s Local Transport Summit in Sheffield, reported extensively elsewhere in this issue, took place in the eye of the storm that has seen a major upheaval in transport discussion over the past few months. This has left those working in the sector professionally unavoidably needing to address the challenging matters of new political priorities and sensitivities, and the consequences of initiatives like the courting of the motorists, the cancellation of HS2 and the reallocation of its expenditure, and what many might see as back sliding on climate change and decarbonisation commitments.

Fine-tuning a new set of advice to politicians about the sensible and sustainable professional thinking on transport matters would have been a wasted energy in the current environment, and so much more usefully the Summit spent most time on listening to creative thinkers from outside the tent, hearing about insightful research and engagement on the ground, and considering what the profession might learn from that material, rather than the message being sent the other way.

A full report of the Summit appears elsewhere in this issue, which is commended to both those readers who were present, and most particularly, to those who were not, and missed what was generally agreed to have been a very valuable and worthwhile event.

Excellent examples of taking different perspective on things were to be particularly found in the presentations by behaviouralist Pete Dyson, community activity advocates Eve Holt, Eleanor Broad and Nicola Marshall, criminologist Professor Ian Loader, and multi-talented urban systems thinker and artist Professor Joe Ravitz.

Some of the practitioner establishment also seemed ready to test new concepts, including Nicola Kane, Steven Bishop, Katie Day, Graham Grant, Martin Tugwell, Greg Marsden, John Lamb, Keith Mitchell, Kris Beuret and Stephen Wood.

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Those working in the transport field are having to recalibrate their approaches and propositions, not just to recognise the significance of climate change,
as has been the case over the past few years, but to also reflect other recently emerging challenges.

An excellent reminder of the realities of front line politics was provided at the Summit dinner from Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh and former transport minister Norman Baker. Haigh reflected the constraints of her position as part of a government in waiting, limiting her firm commitments simply to the rail and bus sectors, although revealing interestingly, that she had read and admired Pete Dyson’s challenging thinking in his book Transport for Humans.

Baker, freed from any political leadership responsibilities, reminded us of the realities of government and dealing with both cautious civil servants and political compromises, whilst always having the frustration of navigating the constraints of the all-powerful Treasury control over spending - now no doubt well-understood by Louise Haigh too, as she works alongside Shadow Chancellor Rachael Reeves in preparing for power.

Dyson’s latest thinking tackled the issue of the so called ‘carrot and stick’ policy packaging, questioning the appropriateness of the metaphor and its approaches to achieving behavioural change, whilst Ian Loader offered fascinating insights as a criminologist into how drivers’ behaviour, and the presence of cars in unwelcome situations, was perceived by the rest of the community as quasi-criminal activity.

Meanwhile, Eve Holt spoke of her experience in helping people increase their active travel behaviour, and Nicola Marshall revealed how she had joined South Yorkshire in an active travel role from previous work in the retail sector as a director with Sweaty Betty Foundation, and looked upon the substantial funds available to her to facilitate behaviour change as an amazing resource rather than a restricted budget.

Beyond the formal presentations, panel discussions and round table workshops, informal conversations ranged far and wide and it seemed that those working in the transport field were having to recalibrate their approaches and propositions not just to recognise the significance of climate change, as has been the case over the past few years, but to also reflect other recently emerging challenges.

These include the fact that practical implications of necessary personal adjustments to people’s behaviour to address the climate challenge are being overtaken by other pressing issues like the cost of living crisis, a sense of frustration at the intense pressures of modern life, and the lack of individual control over decisions, and what might be described as a feeling of fear about the future.

So, what could be some new approaches that address the issue of transport in its widest context, and resonate with and engage with the broader community and their leaders, that the Summit seemed to identify as necessary?

Might this mean a new suite of policy approaches are needed, for instance, with a much greater sensitivity to how transport issues effect ordinary people at different levels and circumstances: from the neighbourhoods where they live, to the more significant and longer journeys they make, and the interaction they have with transport as a enabling service for accessing shopping and other services provided by third parties, and the best balance between physical movement and other forms of access provision and connectivity.

Alongside this, the direct impacts on people of individual policy measures do seem to need much more careful analysis that ensure forms of regulation, enforcement and charging for road use are sensitive to the behavioural prompts sought, the ways they are perceived by the public and the press, and the impacts across a wide range of people’s personal circumstances and ability to pay.

Such new thinking could be supported by the pioneering work that’s been recently undertaken on transport and social exclusion by Transport for the North , and a greater understanding of the importance of the affordability of different choices, in which the introduction of the £2 maximum bus fare might turn out to have been a very significant step; as is the right charging regime required — in both senses — to achieve the switch to electric car use.

Work recently undertaken by Keith Mitchell of Stantec (in collaboration with TfN, TfGM, Bury Council and the Universities of Leeds, Lancaster and Newcastle), and outlined at the Summit faces up to the challenge of how to deliver the radical changes needed to bridge the gap between the current pace and scale pace of transport decarbonisation and what is actually needed to meet our net zero obligations. Key amongst the conclusions of this work is the need to reform how we engage communities in the process of change – away from a ‘public deficit approach’ which considers public opposition to new innovations as reflective of a societal resistance to change – and towards a ‘societal readiness’ approach which seeks to understand how projects need to change to meet the needs of society. Societal Readiness Assessment (SoRA), when used as an integral part of project development, can act as an effective way of managing dissent constructively, and could be an important tool in the delivery of lasting change. As Mitchell opined, ‘We have not yet developed the tools and techniques needed to frame a shared, objectives-led vision at all scales of planning and development, and this is a challenge the profession needs to grasp’.

Underlying these difficult and challenging issues seems to be the key point that traditional economics - notably the value of time savings and the overiding pursuit of economic growth - have remained at the core of UK transport appraisal practice and official guidance for too long whilst the debate in wider society has embraced a widening spectrum of societal impacts and outlooks. Many of these are not easily dealt with in numbers, and even the relative importance of them can only be properly established through both quantitative and qualitative research and understanding of their societal significance.

There seemed to be a period around 20 years ago when focus group studies and attempts to understand both the expectations and impacts of transport within people’s broader lives were much more prevalent in the sector than today. Such insights are again greatly needed to inform current decisions, and approaches to how they are made.

There is an urgent need to again explore in much more detail the impacts of existing transport and accessibility provision, and the changes that will follow new interventions and investments across a wide range of areas, including health impacts, social cohesion, the distribution, and accumulation of economic consequences (Good and Bad) across population groups, and by applying the measure of social justice. There is a long way to go before social impacts of transport projects are completely included in appraisals, and likewise, the environmental and ecological effects, in a way that allows us to properly set them alongside the economic arguments in all their dimensions.

Having a much more thoughtful look at the new National Networks National Policy Statement would be a good place to start, as the Transport Select Committee have just said in their comments on the current inadequately presented draft. As the benchmark test for national investment priorities on road and rail this should be at the cutting edge of practice, not a self- serving way to wave schemes through.

Much better work on this could be then applied more widely to good effect, and help provide a broader and personally relevant underpinning framework for transport decision-making of the kind the Summit clearly signalled as so very necessary.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTTmagazine, LTT879, 31 October 2023.

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