TAPAS.network | 28 November 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Time for a wider look at transport’s trickiest challenges

Peter Stonham

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE of opinion and ideas about the best way forward for transport.

The problem is that they can’t all be pursued, and not all of the ideas and policies being proposed are rooted in either science or evidence. They represent a lot of ‘conventional wisdom’, and some ‘unconventional wisdom’ both of which have not always been subject to either practical or even laboratory testing for their efficacy and current and future circumstances.

Recent events have exposed a kind of conceptual deficit in our thinking about why we are doing particular things, and what are the best ways — or alternative approaches — to achieving different objectives.

Such areas of thought include the purposes and costs of expanded provision of inter-urban transport, the big examples of which are of course HS2 and the major road network; another is finding a strategy to reliably and effectively achieve transport decarbonisation, i.e. the best route to net zero; and then there is the matter of how to achieve better local neighbourhood living whilst maintaining required levels of accessibility and mobility — the LTN/15-minute cities debate; And similarly how to plug gaps in transport in low density areas, as personified in the advocacy for so-called innovative solutions such as DRT. Not to mention the implications of AI in the transport world, and the role of automation in the operation of road transport, aviation, and new forms of mobility.

In none of these areas are the policies being currently pursued either demonstrably appropriate, fully tested, or commanding of clear general support.

Back in 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term “wicked problem” in the field of thought and problem solving, in order to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of addressing planning and social policy problems of the kinds described.

Such wicked problems feature many interdependent factors making them seem virtually impossible to solve as there is no definitive formula for addressing them, as there often might be for more conventional issues. A wicked problem often is rooted in a social or cultural conundrum. For example, making a choice between public and private transport, or low impact mobility as against hyper-mobility.

The trickiest problems are indeed those that it is hard to address because of incomplete, contradictory, mutually contingent, and changing requirements that are often even difficult to recognize and define. And particularly challenging because not enough currently available information is understood about the problem, the broad extent of interests and stakeholders involved, the range of varying opinions, the mutually conflicting economic and environmental burdens, or the impact of these problems with other problems. For example, the link between transport’s impacts on general economic welfare and more specific environmental and social consequences.

Challenging subject areas such as those identified above, surely require consideration in new ways, that means not simply placing them in front of the usual suspects for discussion and decision making, as those people will most likely bring to bear existing expectations and thought processes, when what they require is new ones: Those that can open up new possibilities for ways forward, and perhaps allow abandonment of old ones without knee-jerk self-serving resistance to protect the status quo, and defend already made commitments, which in turn means finding genuinely fresh minds to tackle them anew by putting personal opinion and established thinking to one side.

Under our current processes and practices, chosen approaches are very often underpinned by deploying assessment using existing embedded concepts and formulae, carefully honed to represent supposed ‘best practice’. For example the carefully constructed frameworks used by the Department for Transport’s Transport Appraisal and Strategic Modelling (TASM) processes, or the Treasury’s Green Book guidance which, whilst avowedly not a mechanical or deterministic decision-making device, does provide ‘approved thinking’ models and methods to support the provision of advice to clarify the social and public welfare costs, benefits, and trade-offs of alternative implementation options for the delivery of already determined policy objectives.

Sometimes new existential challenges might require solutions that do not suit either the existing concepts, the current framework of activity, or marketplace situations, or only be reflective of the values and aspirations within current society and the world we live in. In short, which might require a new paradigm to take us into the future.

It is hard to imagine the necessary radical and forward-looking conceptual thinking emerging from established rulebooks or missions already defined for those responsible agencies related to transport which currently have a largely functional locus and responsibility in looking at the way forward, generally by making steps further along pathways that are already in place. This definition of institutional statis must include the work of the main public bodies responsible for transport policy delivery — Department for Transport, National Highways, Network Rail, Civil Aviation Authority, Transport for London, and the like. Most of these have a pre-commitment to certain types of policy/objective, either derived politically, or set in place by their specific codified mission/objectives.

Campaign groups can, and do, have more freedom to argue for change. But that is often the change they have already decided they want to see in their stated policy mission. Meanwhile, institutions with a clear professional position (ICE, CIHT, CILT, etc) generally find genuinely original thinking difficult — although sometimes they do set up special commissions to grapple with the most challenging emerging issues affecting both their professional memberships and society more generally. Even academics seem these days mainly to be representing a point of view, rather than looking at things with a fresh pair of eyes.

Other bodies are, encouragingly, to a greater extent independent of current policy — for example the Climate Change Committee and the House of Commons Transport Select Committee — and do part of the job of asking new questions and seeking new answers, but are limited on resources and prioritising amongst many possible topics to explore.

Likewise, local transport authorities, and even the new generation of Sub-national Transport Bodies, some of which are welcomely exploring new horizons, have plenty on their plate with immediate issues, for them to be able to think openly and widely about the meta issues of our time.

It’s also good that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have the remit of reviewing existing practice and performance, and have published some challenging and revelatory reports, though their interventions generally only come after decisions are made and resources deployed.

Lastly, the courts are meanwhile increasingly involved in transport cases and challenges, being used as referees about disputed positions. Whilst judges are there to bring forensic and balanced minds to bear, they too have to be guided by the existing law and the details of the particular cases on which they are asked to rule.

From time to time, bodies that are now regarded as having been historically highly significant have been created and invited to take just such a new look at transport matters, and have broken new ground. These include the work undertaken in 1963 for the Ministry of Transport by the team headed by Colin Buchanan which delivered ‘Traffic in Towns’;, that of SACTRA (the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment) which studied the true economic and social impacts of road building and In 1994, produced a major review of the effect of increasing road capacity for trunk roads and motorways; and The Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT), designed to advise the last Labour Government on achieving integrated transport policy and its interface with wider Government objectives for economic prosperity, environmental protection, health and social inclusion. There have also been various Royal Commissions and inquiries into specific matters, including the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution which produced its important and agenda-setting 18th report on Transport and the Environment in 1994. Sadly, all of these bodies are now long gone, reflecting the fact that such inquiries and reviews have tended to be time-specific, issue-specific, and undertaken by bodies which do not have the resources to look deeply and consistently at critical emerging transport issues over time.

In this issue of LTT, our contributor David Metz looks critically in his column at the recent work of the National Infrastructure Commission, and we report on the confused and unresolved status of the Southern part of HS2 and its increasingly questionable value for money after the Prime Minister’s arguably brave and necessary decision to call a halt to the mounting cost and poor value of HS2’s two northern legs. We also note the Transport Select Committee’s grilling of Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, about post-HS2 strategic thinking, and the Welsh Government’s limited capability to assess progress on its policy of judging policy impacts against the wellness of future generation objective. We note too Transport for the South East’s own first progress review.

Is there, then, a place for some kind of new reference body for transport — either with the freedom to look at particular problems/challenges it identifies itself, and come up with fresh thinking, or perhaps to be able to receive references about specific matters on which it can take a long, hard, original and independent look.

Such a body would not sensibly be made up of ‘transport experts’ — quite the reverse. What would be really potentially helpful and add value would be for it to be led by people with either a skill in examining evidence, or wider synoptic role in society more generally, or even just being highly-regarded and well-informed ‘lay people’ who might be expected to apply suitable brain power and original thinking rather than airing existing opinions and pet theories.

At a time of massive change, the future is clearly unlikely to be well served by ‘more of the same’.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT881, 28 November 2023.

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