Turning transport planning on its head: part II

Turning transport planning on its head: part II

The publication of the Independent Transport Commission’s report, On the Move 2, in December last year, has stimulated some serious thinking about the nature of changing travel trends in England, and what the implications are for transport policy making. For some, the evidence it presents about a break having taken place between the growth in travel per head and the growth of the economy, is compelling, and requires disruptive change in the approach we adopt to demand forecasting, transport & land use planning, and justification for transport projects. For others, it is more a matter of adapting current techniques to reflect the latest data, and maintaining a focus on the increasing aggregate demand for travel, now linked to ongoing population growth.

In my first article on this topic in 2016, Turning transport planning on its head: part I, I was leaning firmly towards the former camp, suggesting that…

'The transport planning profession is ... worried that its traditional advisory role in planning is being usurped in favour of more pragmatic decision making focused on political requirements to drive economic growth. Instead, we need a determined response from the profession.

We need to use our understanding of movement, and its effects on transport systems, land uses, communities and economies, to help decision makers make judgements about investment decisions.'

So, how do we best improve our understanding of these issues, and learn how to adapt to these changing circumstances? At PBA, we are curious about these things, and are keen to ensure the work we do takes account of the latest evidence, and leads to well-planned, cost effective outcomes for the built environment. So we asked the ITC to visit us, explain their findings and discuss the implications with a wide range of built environment professionals. We were therefore delighted to welcome ITC Director, Dr Matthew Niblett and one of the authors of On the Move 2, Peter Headicar of Oxford Brookes University to our office in Reading for a live streamed conference and interactive debate around all of our regional offices.

What did we discover?

  • Personal travel per head in England has ‘decoupled’ from economic growth since mid 1990s and has fallen by 7% since 2007
  • The car driver mode share of travel has fallen by 2 percentage points since mid-1990s whilst the rail mode share has increased by 4 points
  • These changes in mode share are in spite of increases in car ownership and car availability. Annual miles per car have fallen by 9% since 2005
  • Because of these changes total car/van mileage for personal travel is no greater now than 20 years ago despite a 13% increase in population

These findings are interesting in their own right, but what is happening in the underlying statistics is even more interesting. For example:

  • Men between 17 and 34 are travelling by car much less than 20 years ago - car driver miles per person are down 47%. (that’s right – 47%);
  • For women in this age group the reduction is 15%, and for men between 35 and 59 the reduction is 24%;
  • Other age/ gender groups have increased, particularly the over 60’s, but the total numbers this represents as a proportion of the total is small;
  • These reductions in car driver miles, and increases in surface rail travel are most noticeable amongst higher income households, and larger built up areas;

It is difficult to determine cause and effect when considering such high level data when there are so many factors at play which disrupt even the most diligent and persistent analysis. However, these changes have been happening over a period in which awareness of the impact of car travel on the environment has increased, in which sustainable transport and land use planning has been encouraging more sustainable patterns of development, in which investment in major new road capacity has fallen whilst for rail this has increased, and in which technology and the tax regime has supported the adoption of sustainable modes. The cohorts of ‘travel trends’ by gender and age group in particular suggest that there are significantly different behaviours being established through time, reflecting an increasing response to these issues.

One of the challenges of these discussions is to find a way of relating high level, academic research aimed at influencing national policy to the day-to-day, project related concerns of practitioners who are dealing with current policy and practice as experienced ‘on the ground’.

Nevertheless, these findings clearly suggest that an over simplified view of transport assessment and appraisal based on current practice is likely to lead to misleading outcomes. If such significant changes have been taking place over the last 20 years, how much faster could further change take place as technological change supports increasing trip substitution and attractiveness of mobility as a service, rather than the current car ownership model; and if the 17–34 age group’s travel patterns are maintained as the years pass, and a younger cohort takes their place with sustained lower levels of car use, so greater reductions in per capita movement could be anticipated.

None of this is included in current forecasting or appraisal methodologies, so it would seem to follow that we are seriously at risk of planning a transport infrastructure environment which is not fit for the needs of our future society. Surely a more forward thinking approach is needed, in which we cast our minds forward to a built environment we wish to see delivered, and use our skills to determine the best way new transport policies, infrastructure and services can be provided to both influence and support the communities of the future?

There is more work to do, and the ITC is thankfully up for this as it takes forward its Cities and Infrastructure workstream. There is also a new Commission on Travel Demand, led by Professor Greg Marsden, which as part of its brief will be considering future requirements for carbon reduction, current uncertainty about future demand, and institutional inertia in changing the way we plan. In the meantime, a thoughtful and tailored approach is required, and we need to be up to that challenge.