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Expert Roundtable: Shaping the Nation’s Transport Future Through a Whole-Systems Approach

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UKCRIC

5 min read Partner content

Transport is the lifeblood that sustains economies and connects communities to jobs and leisure. But with changing needs and fresh challenges, how can we ensure that the nation’s transport infrastructure is fit for tomorrow? PoliticsHome sat down with experts from UKCRIC to find out.

All of us rely upon an efficient, effective, and sustainable transport system. Whether it is connecting people to work and leisure or allowing the easy movement of the goods that appear on the nation’s supermarket shelves (and, increasingly, our doorsteps), transport shapes the way that we all live our lives.

But transport is about much more than simply moving people and goods from one place to another. It is also about creating an infrastructure that reflects the current needs of the nation whilst also helping to deliver a long-term vision for a more prosperous and sustainable future.

PoliticsHome recently sat down with three leading national experts on transport infrastructure who are part of UKCRIC, a collaborative research body focused on infrastructure and cities. On the agenda were the transport challenges facing the nation and how these can best be addressed.

Professor Nick Tyler, Director of the Centre for Transport Studies at UCL, began by telling us that often transport as a policy area focuses too much on the infrastructure and not enough on the needs of people who use it.

“We’ve run into the buffers because we're finding that the transport infrastructure itself is not necessarily working well for the people,” he explains. “People see transport too much as being ‘how I get from A to B’ and not enough of ‘we want to create a better society, we want to have a good quality life, we want to have health’. Those are the things we should value and the transport system should be focused on delivering them.”

Professor William Powrie from the National Infrastructure Laboratory at the University of Southampton makes a plea for the nation to prioritise “travelling less but travelling better.” It is a theme that is taken up by his UKCRIC colleague Professor Chris Rogers from the National Buried Infrastructure Facility at the University of Birmingham. For Professor Rogers, debates about transport need to be much broader, to understand how they fit into a wider vision about the sort of society we aspire to be.

“Connectedness is about people of course, but it's also about this whole idea of everything moving synergistically,” he says. “So, we talk about systems and how those systems should operate, but we also need other movements to take place alongside that.”

Professor Rogers also draws attention to the critical role that transport can play in shaping the future and economy of places in the UK. Our expert panel points to historical precedents such as the way that the development of canals and railways transformed the function of places in the past. Modern transport, they argue, can perform a similar role in shaping the economy and society of the future. However, if that is to happen, bold political leadership is required.

“Traditionally, we plan and build infrastructure to meet predicted demand, which, because the predictions are based on current demand, reinforces and locks us in to the patterns of behaviour and demand that are already there,” Professor Powrie explains. “I think politicians have to be bold and take the step of planning and building infrastructure that will create the kind of future we want and need.”

That whole systems approach requires careful analysis of the different trends that are shaping the nation’s transport needs – from technology to decarbonisation to the changing world of work.

Those changes are already underway. Professor Tyler points to the COVID pandemic as a disruptive event that has forced both policymakers and the public to think differently about what they actually need from an efficient and sustainable transport system.

“COVID made people think a lot more,” he tells us. “They realised that they could do things which they had thought they could only do in the office almost anywhere. We now have a different world in which to operate and the transport system needs to reflect that.”

That different world is also starting to embrace new technologies – both to design infrastructure and to maintain it. The panel agrees that this is valuable whilst also cautioning that the rush to embrace data must not fail to understand the people who will be using our future transport system.

“Digital data is what we all talk about, but actually humans are not digital,” Professor Tyler says. “We tend to over-design stuff when it comes to infrastructure and under-design it in terms of people. We need to be looking at some other form of more organic data that would actually then enable us to design the infrastructure, the vehicles, the technologies that work better with people.”

For that to be delivered requires new thinking, new approaches, and new collaborations. At the centre of that needs to be a shift from competition to collaboration, creating an operating environment where all stakeholders have the opportunity to work together to achieve a common vision.

“NASA has this no-fault approach: if something goes wrong, everybody will learn from it and look for better ways of doing things,” Professor Rogers tells us  as the group reflects on some of the lessons from HS2. “That type of collaboration should pervade everything that we do in transport.”

Addressing important questions around risk, expertise, and communication will be vital if the nation is to deliver major transport infrastructure in the future. However, the panel ultimately agreed that the fundamental shift must be transport policy making a transition from focusing on the shiny large-scale projects which take too long to implement and often lose their way in the political scheme of things, towards linking local and regional investment programmes together to support national priorities and the larger societal vision.  

They believe that politicians have an important role to play in making that happen – setting a long-term vision for the society that the nation aspires to be.   

“Remember, transport is not an end in itself. It's a means to an end,” Professor Powrie reminds us. “The end is essentially a prosperous, productive, healthy, and feel-good society. That's what it has to be about.”

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