This year’s Transport Planning Network Conference was all about visioning. Which is the process by which a desirable future is imagined and then you work backwards to find how you can get there.
But starting at your destination is tricky. People carry a lot of baggage from the past and present. It’s difficult to think about what you would like to see, when you’re constantly feeling the pressure of what you think you could actually accomplish. Even if such thinking may hold you back.
Indeed, if you have not been trained on images of Freiburg and Copenhagen and Dutch transport planning, it can be difficult to ‘see’ the vision in the first place, even if pockets of it are right around the corner. Our first keynote speaker, Professor Emeritus Phil Goodwin noted that not only vested interests and political resistance are holding us back from visions of pedestrian paradise. People in their communities are often so car dependent that they may not be able to see any viable alternative for a low-car future of mobility that will allow them to fully participate in economic, civic, and social life.
Which is why one of our other speakers, James Gleave, asked us to think about what powers transport and planning professionals are willing to give up to help people dig through the practical, cultural, and social influences that affect their choices so that they can develop, define, and perhaps even deliver their own visions for their own communities. In such a scenario, transport planners might become more than regulators and legislators or even funders. They could take roles as leaders and educators, stewards and customers, negotiators and reformers.
And these suggestions fit in well with the other challenges to developing a future of mobility that is visionary.
Keith Mitchell noted that despite the push to prioritise housing numbers over places, the private sector is already looking at what other roles they should fulfil to deliver better visions. Tackling climate change and social value are gaining prominence in their tenders for work.
Leo Murray noted that technology, and particularly EVs, cannot alone solve the climate emergency. By some calculations, a reduction of 60% in vehicle miles travelled is required by 2030, and it won’t happen without a vision – and different roles for planning professionals to make sure that vision is shared.
Besides, even where legislation and policy support already exist, from the Climate Change Act to legislation and policy on equity and inclusion, as Joanna Ward noted, it may be the lack of diversity and awareness of different access needs among decision-makers which is perpetuating biases.
Our second keynote speaker, Lynda Addison OBE, summed up the problem perfectly. Not only do we need to start with a vision, which is our destination, but that collaborative vision should be based on the premise that ‘Transport is the solution, not the problem’. Then, instead of transport being something to mitigate through the land use planning process, sustainable travel choice are part of the vision we are working towards through the spatial planning process. Plans and planning applications can respond to the vision through inter-disciplinary evidence gathering and iterative thinking.
In other words, start at your destination, your vision, then work backwards, but your path will not be linear, but circular. Ask: What exists already that fits the vision? What opportunities or obstacles sit between where you are now and where you want to be? What actions can you or your organisation take and what actions must be taken by others, by people working at a larger or smaller scale? We asked questions of this sort in the final workshop of the event.
And we discovered a few answers. Not all, as an iterative process means going back and forth between the vision and those questions, not just as a small group of transport planners, but as wider communities. Yet we certainly learned a few things. One of which is how difficult it is to start at your destination!