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Transport planning in uncertain times

Kate Mackay believes that our increasingly uncertain and ever more complex world requires transport planners to adopt a new approach.

The phrase ‘we don’t know what the future holds’ has never seemed more apt.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder that we live in a world of uncertainty. The sixth assessment report from the International Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science, found that some changes to the Earth’s climate are now inevitable and ‘irreversible’. The outcome will be more frequent and unpredictable extreme weather events and sea level rise, making it harder than ever to forecast the future, yet even more important that we achieve net zero.

As transport planners, we have witnessed an acceleration in pace of change impacting transport and travel behaviour over the past few decades. It’s now a more complex picture.

Digitalisation – on-demand services, ride sharing, connected travellers etc. – and the net-zero agenda were already disrupting transport planning and services, and the pandemic has added a further level of complication. How will we access goods, services, and opportunity post-COVID-19? Will public transport and flight passenger numbers recover? Will more people opt to drive to work rather than catch a bus or train? How many will be tempted to walk or cycle? What happens if there are future pandemics?

Deciding the direction of travel

Deciding the direction of travel

Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, particularly when you’re planning for infrastructure to last 50-70 years. This can lead to decision-making paralysis. Moving forward requires a new approach to transport planning, policy and investment; one that accommodates uncertainty.

The ‘predict and provide’ principle has guided transport planning for many years and bases future transport predictions on past trends and travel habits. Applying this traditional forecast-led paradigm can lead to unrealised expectations for alleviating problems such as congestion and delivering economic, social and environmental outcomes. It encourages a business-as-usual approach and can make it difficult to accommodate change, can conceal uncertainty and give a sense of false precision.

In these increasingly uncertain times, an alternative to predict and provide, known as ‘decide and provide’, is more insightful and flexible, and will help to deliver better outcomes.

Decide and provide focuses on the preferred future, then charts a pathway to achieve that, while also acknowledging and exposing the uncertainties that lie ahead. It is about developing plausible future do nothing scenarios to stress test options for their robustness, not relying on single point projections. It is a new way of thinking as well as a new way of doing, and is embodied in FUTURES, our six-stage approach to transport planning and for making robust policy and investment decisions.

The six stages – which can be used individually or together, and are adaptable to the needs of an organisation or situation – are:

  1. Gearing up: The preparatory stage helps you to understand the overall FUTURES approach and its underlying philosophy. It is important that you identify and engage the right external and internal stakeholders so everyone understands the FUTURES approach and that it can be tailored to your needs.
  2. Preferred futures: This stage focuses on the purpose, performance and outcomes you want to achieve, weighing social, environmental, economic and technological drivers and considerations in deciding the future you and your stakeholders want. The output is a vision and a high-level strategy that is tested and developed in the following stages.
  3. Opening out: Opening out involves testing your vision and high-level strategy against plausible future scenarios. Exposing the extent of possible change, challenge and uncertainty initiates a process of addressing issues to improve the robustness of your forward planning.
  4. Options: The opening out phase enables the development of strong, realistic, forward-looking options for realising your vision.
  5. Closing down: This stage helps you to examine how your options could perform in different futures. Do they align well across all scenarios in terms of achieving the outcomes you seek or is alignment poor in some scenarios, suggesting high risk. At the end of the closing down process you should have narrowed your options and be confident they will enable you to fulfil your purpose and vision and so should be included in your strategy.
  6. Review: This is continuous. Regular performance monitoring and strategic review are essential in light of a changing market and operating environment. Adapting to conditions may involve re-running parts of the approach (perhaps in a lighter touch way). Re-running may also be helpful as your staff and stakeholders will change over time.

Delivering the future

Delivering the future

FUTURES is vision led and recognises that travel is a derived demand, and that transport planning is principally about access planning – ensuring people can access goods, services, family and friends. Spatial proximity, digital connectivity and transport are key to providing access and bringing these three elements together is known as triple access planning (TAP).

We’re currently using FUTURES and TAP to develop a future transport strategy for a major local government area in south-east Queensland, Australia. The population is expected to grow significantly – though the actual numbers are uncertain – and this will have considerable impact on the transport system and how people get around.

We’re placing the customer at the centre of the new 2041 transport strategy, which will guide the local authority on how best to respond to future change. The approach is grounded on the following principles:

  • Outcome orientated through vision led planning
  • Agile and robust to change through considering future uncertainty
  • Focused on providing access through framing the strategy around TAP
  • Evidence based through data and intelligence
  • Considering user needs through design thinking

In addition, we are also leading the way globally to plan for a net-zero future for transport, using our FUTURES Relay workshops to engage clients around the world in a conversation about how decide and provide and TAP can help their cities achieve the shift to cleaner transport systems. After piloting the process in Glasgow, we’ve recently had our first Relay in Sydney, with baton passing now to Singapore, and then to Tbilisi, New York, LA and Vancouver.

Taking this collaborative approach to deciding the way we want to access goods, services and opportunity in the future will help align stakeholders towards a common goal, and shape what we want a net-zero transport system to look like.

We can then explore ways to create a pathway to get there – one that accommodates uncertainty and allows us to deliver a robust and resilient transport strategy.

      Kate Mackay is Australia practice leader for transport planning at Mott MacDonald

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