The first set of notes

After seemingly years of promising to do it, and of course ranting about various transporty things on Twitter, I have finally gone and done it. I’ve only gone and got my own blog dedicated to the wonderful world of transport planning.

I won’t bore you with the stuff about me (I have an About for that), but I thought i’d use this first post to say hi (er…hi) and to say about the sort of things I’ll talk about. Which is, shock horror, most things to do with transport and related fields. By that I mean planning, economic development, politics, local government, anything transport-related really. You never know, I may impart some wisdom as well.

There won’t really be a formal structure to this blog at all. But I think its still useful to at least introduce the approach behind it. Unsurprisingly, this reflects my approach to the work that I do every day.

People matter more than machines.

Traffic

Nice (from TheCarGuru Blog)

This is probably my number one gripe. Transport planning has, for long as I can remember (or at least those more experienced have told me!), been about maximising the efficiency of transport through the minimisation of time and cost, particularly for road transport. For me, this is a narrow view of the world.

Our streets are our greatest public asset, so to simply focus on accommodating motor traffic is at the expense of the environmental and social benefits of more people-friendly modes like by foot and by bicycle. These are things like being able to interact with your neighbours and even strangers in a neutral and safe place without having to battle traffic, enjoying the health benefits of cycling along convenient routes without having to weave in and out of traffic, even simple things like kids playing in streets knowing that cars have to watch out for them as much as they watch out for cars. I firmly believe that if you design a place and that design focusses on machines, the place takes on the characteristics of a machine: Functional and efficient (for the machine), but lacking character, heart, even a soul. And that is what makes a great place to live and be.

All modes of transport have an economic and social good, but their excessive use does not

To many I will go completely against what I said above by saying this, but as a transport planner I accept that even modes that we consider less desirable have an economic and social good associated with them. The car is the most notable example of this. Undoubtedly, to many it has been a great liberator, allowing people to access places and experience things that whilst not impossible, are incredibly difficult without it. To many car ownership is a lifeline – for the disabled person unable to access local bus services (for now at least) to go about their daily lives, for persons on low incomes living in areas poorly served by public transport, and to the busy mother who has to drive little Tarquin 500 yards to the school. Ok, the last one was a joke. We also must accept that some trips may simply not be achievable by other modes, and we certainly do not want to take a dictatorial approach of saying must not use their cars.

The problem lies when we develop and promote less desirable modes in such a way that encourages excessive and dangerous use that has a negative impact on others. Most of the negative impacts of excessive car use are well documented, but its worthwhile re-iterating them. Congestion has massive implications economically, socially, and environmentally. Highway design can encourage, or at least not discourage, dangerous driving behaviours that proportionately affect more vulnerable highway users. Reductions in active travel have expanded waistlines and increased healthcare issues and associated costs. Even more children are being driven short distances to school than ever due to the fear of traffic. I may be unfairly picking on the car here, but its the easiest mode by which to make a point. When one mode completely dominates it is at the expense of others. After all, there is only so much space on a highway. So the trick we have to pull as transport planners is maximise the benefits of modes seen as more desirable without huge negative impacts on others within our towns and cities. Sadly, its a balance that we don’t often strike very well.

Tomorrow’s problems require action now

Patrick McLoughlin

The (current) Big Cheese (from DfT)

Transport is a long term business seen in the short term. People face immediate issues associated with transport – whether they be safe streets, overcrowded trains, or congested roads – and therefore see the solution as immediate. Unfortunately, this can permeate into decision making, particularly at the political level where ‘something must be done’ and done now to sort the issue, regardless of consequences well known to transport professionals. And many of these may not come about for a fair few years.

Within this context, it is easy to forget the issues of tomorrow that, given the speed at which infrastructure is built in this country (that will no doubt be a subject of a future post), we need to start planning for. Issues such as peak oil and global warming will happen, our crisis of health is almost upon us now, and continuing economic prosperity through upgrading and improving infrastructure pose serious questions about how we want our towns, cities, rural areas, and infrastructure to look like and work in the future. The impact of transport on national geography should also not be under-estimated – just look at the impacts our Victorian Railways had on many towns and cities. An infrastructure, incidentally, the shows the long term impacts of transport very well. After all, we still run trains on the railways they put down over 100 years ago!

Changes don’t come about by waiting for others to do it

This is a more personal thing rather than a much wider commentary on the workings of the transport profession. I think that the only way to demonstrate a new approach to delivery or the potential of a policy approach is to actually deliver it and test it properly, and for you to take ownership of it. Of course you’ll need some like-minded people to help along the way, and importantly approve it and get funding for it, but there is no point wasting time waiting for others to do it, and complaining about them not doing so.

I also feel that the only way to learn lessons of schemes and initiatives, and importantly to understand them, is to get out there and experience it for yourself. Think that new bike lane is the bees knees? Have you ridden along it yet, or see an old lady try and do it? Data, technical reports, and Streetview only tell you so much – you have to see it and feel it. For me, its the best way to learn as a professional.

I look forward to continued blogging with you, and of course reading your comments. If you have your own blog, let me follow you (i’m still working on my follow list). You can also follow me on Twitter (warning: may contain ranting, especially when the football is on) if you like.

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4 thoughts on “The first set of notes

  1. georgie

    James, I wish every transport planner had your viewpoint. Good luck in your ventures and here’s to many successful future transport plans! We need more like you because you got it spot on in the penultimate paragraph – get out there and try it!

    Reply
  2. Phil Jones

    Just caught up with your blog James – great stuff, look forward to reading your thoughts over the coming weeks and months.

    I really like this, and may well steal it:

    ‘… if you design a place and that design focusses on machines, the place takes on the characteristics of a machine’.

    Brilliant!

    Cheers, Phil

    Reply

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