Bold visions will help transport planners navigate uncertainty

Mott MacDonald professor of future mobility Glenn Lyons explains how transport planners can tackle uncertainty and invest for the future. 

‘Wicked’ problems are characterised by the insoluble: there can be no ‘right’ answer when stakeholders have widely different views and value judgments. Uncertainty over future transport needs is made even more complex as it encompasses wider issues such as social trends, political disruption and economic turbulence. Understanding cause and effect is highly challenging. 

This is the fog UK transport planners must navigate in their role of supporting decision makers. 

Let’s take driverless cars as an example. Should the government gamble against autonomous vehicles and legislate that they shouldn’t be allowed on the UK road network, or at least adopt a ‘wait and see’ healthy scepticism? That would run contrary to what has been growing hype about their inevitability. Decision makers don’t want a ‘Kodak moment’, where the world changes and leaves them stranded. Moreover, some say transport policy is hardwired to encourage growth of the automobile.

However, the government can’t throw itself wholesale behind autonomous vehicles either. Nobody knows how close manufacturers are to offering driverless cars that are safe and affordable – and without a steering wheel. And the evidence shows that young people are increasingly unlikely to want or need a car compared with their parents.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. Instead of using policy to encourage more people to drive – by growing road capacity and reducing areas of congestion – should planners make cities more self-contained for people who would rather stay put? How do they stop road destinations becoming economic backwaters? 

This is the ‘stick or twist’ scenario that is proving so difficult to confront, as “building more roads” was until recently the only direction of travel for a society in love with the car. However, planners and their political masters still need to make infrastructure investments. if consultants simply present a series of question marks, it doesn't help transport planners set a clear course of action for investments. The answer is to find the most appropriate direction of travel – in the face of multiple futures –  that will give the most likely chance of a good if not high yield. 

Besides, falling into a state of ‘decision paralysis’ risks missing out on some clear opportunities that (while nothing is certain) offer better odds. For example, a digital approach to asset management to optimise maintenance and minimise disruption will prove prudent whether we end up using electric vehicles, driverless cars, or simply boost the number of buses. Even when faced with deep uncertainty, there's a place for positive action that takes advantage of technological innovation.

Employ a ‘big vision’-led approach: decide and provide

Planners and politicians are subject to the dynamics of the open market and the winds of societal change. They have a problem that is beyond complex – it’s wicked. This calls for an unorthodox transport planning approach. Guided by a high-level vision and desirable outcomes, we can start to determine a set of policies for the country’s connectivity provision – essential for supporting our means to access people, goods, services and opportunities. 

Let’s take a vision like: “This organisation will help create a future society that is economically prosperous, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable”. The challenge is then to consider the most appropriate course of policy action that can set a direction towards realising these outcomes. Crucially, this has to accommodate the deep uncertainty faced. Policy action has to be able to move towards the outcomes, achieving ‘greens’ or ‘ambers’ across the uncertainty space of plausible futures and avoiding ‘reds’. 

The policy and investment options that have more green and amber lights across the uncertainty space will have a lower risk of policy failure. You will always have tension between the short-term agenda and longer-term aspirations, but at least this approach allows you to pick the most robust direction of travel – one which you can continually revisit, looking for scope to adapt as the mists occasionally clear.

The approach is uncomfortable – but it would be absurd for us to ignore the winds of societal change. Transport planning needs to adapt in response. This calls for open minds, connected thinking and a willingness to recast our transport analysis and what we consider to be ‘robust’ appraisal of the options at hand. 

Confidence is the key ingredient here, and it’s in short supply given the extent of inertia, resource constraint and uncertainty we face. It’s a time for leadership in transport planning, and perhaps a time for, as my Dutch colleague has put it, heroes in politics.

The Global Engineering Congress (GEC) comes at a good time. The industry has a real opportunity to take a collective deep breath, and then set about finding pragmatic ways to navigate the mysteries of tomorrow. Please come and attend our panel discussion on this very important topic. You can be sure of one thing – the discussion will be lively.  

Professor Glenn Lyons will lead a panel discussion at the Global Engineering Congress on Wednesday 24 October entitled: Getting smart about future transport: Embracing and responding to uncertainty.