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  • Writer's pictureJames Llewellyn

Why on earth do we need transport planners?

When humans largely abandoned the hunter gatherer lifestyle in favour of a pastoral one, the need to move about and hunt for one’s dinner and shelter was removed. But there is clearly something in the human psyche which wants or feels the need to move. Anyone who looks at the traffic-choked seven lane freeways in Los Angeles and countless other US cities would soon understand that. Most humans seem to want to be somewhere else, and the means for getting there is transport. The word “transport” comes from the Latin word “portare” (translating as “across” or “beyond”). It is often beyond me why people travel on a public holiday, but the fact is they do despite dire warnings not to.

I became a transport planner because the thought of being a lawyer or an accountant left me cold. I was also fascinated by planes, trains and buses while still in the pram; and rode the London Underground and bus network for days at a time as soon as I was old enough. Routemaster buses were my reason for being. Transport planning was my destiny.

Everyone knows what transport engineers achieve – the evidence of roads, bridges, railways and ports is everywhere. But transport planners? What do they actually do? And why is it important?

My first transport planning manager stated (without irony) that “if it moves, we are interested in it.” As if to prove a point, he then sent me out to count vehicles on Milton Keynes roundabouts. His pithy summary of transport planning is still not a bad one for the Twitter generation. However, there is a lot more to transport planning than that! The philosopher Descartes may once have said: “I think, therefore I am a transport planner.”

Despite the benefits, the sheer volume and frequency of transport is now causing a whole heap of pretty serious problems – take your pick from traffic congestion; deaths and serious injuries; chronic and sometimes fatal health impacts of air pollution, noise disturbance, obesity and (of course) planet-threatening greenhouse gas emissions. Some people need to travel but can’t because of a disability and this results in miserable isolation; while others travel long distances for their commute which also makes them miserable. Sometimes transport just can’t win. On the flip side transport planning could have the potential to make people happier, although it often doesn’t feel like it during a public consultation exercise around moving a bus stop.

The textbooks will tell you that transport planning starts with travel demand – how much of it there is, and why it does or doesn’t happen. In all of this, another form of planning – spatial – is critical. Crudely defined as “where stuff goes”, spatial planning makes it very easy (or difficult) to travel by different modes such as car, truck, bus, train, walking, cycling and (nowadays) scootering. Getting people and goods from A to B (often via Y and Z) is the foundation of transport planning. If stuff is built in rubbish places, transport becomes a challenge.

Travel demand can spawn the need for a huge amount of data, but the critical issue is to find out why people feel the need to travel (or feel compelled to) in the way that they do (in most cases on their own in a car). And it can be about finding out why people cannot travel when they need to. Freight doesn’t generally have a view on its travel behaviour, and as a result is often a neglected aspect of the transport system. But freight is just as much about personal choice - the result of a modern economy where we are producing and consuming more and more stuff, and sending it all round the globe at the click of a mouse. It is also still the case that a human still has to get the stuff to its end destination, so online shopping is not all about the technology. Transport is, in economic parlance, a “derived demand” from some other activity. Nowadays, travel for the sheer pleasure of it is rare.

The pressure of demand on the supply of transport infrastructure – roads, railways, ports and airports – and the people who provide services (buses, trains, ships and planes) is intense. System faults and meltdowns are common, and easy meat for the media. Since most people travel, there are billions of people around the globe who think they are transport planners, based on what they see on the surface. However, the professional transport planners are those who take time to investigate and address the underlying system conditions.

Travel demand and supply data can be fed into computer models which claim to represent the current “baseline” travel demand situation and forecast the future. These forecasts provide a view about what happens if we sit back and let people make whatever travel decisions they want. The transport planner then intervenes and says: “that probably won’t be a great result”.

Transport planning then goes through a beguilingly attractive strategy development process which can include setting a vision, defining objectives, scoping the problems, identifying the opportunities and then dreaming up ideas to deliver a transport nirvana. Well, sometimes. Quite often there is an urgent need to go and do something because of public dissatisfaction, and it is all hands to the pump to work out what the solution is. Throw in a whole load of stakeholder and public engagement, and you have a good overview of transport planning.

Being able to develop a transport strategy or project that is both affordable and technically feasible is where our engineering friends often come in to help. Transport planning has to remain grounded while also being visionary – never an easy balance. There are also many differing views amongst stakeholders and the public as to what to spend money on (or not). Balancing these views can either be very challenging or a living nightmare. But it is also fascinating and rewarding (once it is over).

What do us transport planners produce? A lot of spreadsheets, computer models, reports, maps, diagrams and flow charts. We don’t build anything. But without transport planners, what government or private company would be able to decide what projects to invest in? And what travel options would different people with varying needs have to choose from?

If we remember to monitor results, evaluate benefits and learn lessons from a project once we have implemented it, that makes us really good transport planners. We can then go into our next piece of work and apply that experience. This is why, in my early 50s, I am enjoying transport planning more than ever. I can go into a meeting with a knowing look and say “we tried that…”

We need transport planners to make important decisions about how to invest money, time and intellectual capital to meet current people’s needs, while ensuring that future people’s lives are not seriously compromised or even devastated.

The ironic thing is that with climate change, transport planners now must try to work out how, by travelling less, people can still live fulfilling and prosperous lives. Maybe it starts by people being happy with where they live, so they don’t want to leave so often? I am told this is called “place-making”. And that’s the great thing about transport planning – there is always a new challenge and something different to learn.

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