Let’s plan for the future, not for now

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 3rd June 2019 by Naomi Green.

In strategic transport planning, discussions about the future are at the forefront of our minds. Infrastructure projects need to be designed to reflect how they will be used at the time of their completion.

No one can doubt that, with the pace of change in technology, data, consumer expectations and our relationship with the environment, the way we move around is likely to change fundamentally in the not too distant future. And this is particularly true for the area served by England’s Economic Heartland, where the ambitions for transformational growth between Oxford and Cambridge are significant.

Predicting transport for the future has been prevalent for some time, even making itself the subject of cult films of the past. In 1985, Back to the Future imagined life in the ‘distant future’ – in 2015. Thirty years later, some predictions turned out to be accurate: automation of services; the use of biometrics; and virtual reality eyewear. However, skies aren’t full of flying cars and the uptake of hover boards hasn’t been quite so widespread.

But from the fictional media of film to the reality of fact, across the country, we need to explore how we can get the relationship between transport planning and future transport demand right so we are able to plan and provide the right infrastructure for generations to come.

For me, the answer lies in understanding people. Transport is a function of people – the journeys they need to make, the choices they have as a result. Within England’s Economic Heartland, as we plan towards our Outline Transport Strategy to 2050, we need to connect our people and places with the opportunities and services that they want and need.

This approach goes beyond the basic principle of accessing one location from another with reliable journey times. To open up housing markets, unlock labour markets, and create places where people want to live and work, connectivity between places needs to be built on the premise of choice. Transport solutions need to have an understanding of the expectations that residents of the Heartland have for their lifestyles and designed to ensure a zero carbon transport network by 2050.

The continued rise of the digital economy provides further opportunities to change the way in which people access services and businesses access markets. We need to seize this as the opportunity to redefine the scale and nature of future travel.

Transformational infrastructure schemes such as East West Rail and the Oxford to Cambridge expressway, if designed to current day standards alone, will not achieve this. Rather, they must be developed in a way that reflects the needs of the people and markets they serve. They must be designed, and have the capacity to evolve, in order to meet the changing nature and demands on the transport network in the future.

This belief underpins everything we are doing in preparation for our transport strategy. Two examples of our approach are set out below.

Understanding the needs of our communities

England’s Economic Heartland is undertaking a deep dive into the personas of our communities and our people so we can model their values and connectivity needs. We will then explore how those needs will translate – now and in the future – into the transport solutions that we are creating.

We have created a team of consultants to work with us on developing a proposition for the Heartland. We are working with urban designers as well as transport analysts and modellers to ensure we put people at the forefront of the transport solutions we hope to have in place across the region.

Predicting transport movements into the future

Just as technological advancements make the future more uncertain, they are also making it easier to develop advancements in our approaches to horizon scanning. One of the significant tools EEH is developing, in partnership with Immense Simulations – an SME in Milton Keynes – is an agent-based simulation tool.

The tool allows us simulate the way people will move in and around the Heartland area now, and into the future. Simulating the world in the future in this way enables data-driven transport outcomes, based on individual behaviours and needs. The outputs from the tool allow us to consider, and model, the impact of different economic, behavioural and spatial planning decisions on the transport network. From this outcome, we will much better placed to predict how the network will respond to different scenarios that we, as communities, businesses, local partners and Government may be considering as part of ensuring the long term success of the region.

These are just two examples of the approach that we are developing in England’s Economy Heartland. For us, our transport strategy needs to be fit for the future, it needs to take the best of data-driven intelligence so we can inform and plan a transport network. But it also needs to be prepared for change – transport systems of the future need flexibility to rise to the challenge and opportunity of technological advancement because, be in no doubt, it will come.

About the Author

This post was written by Naomi Green. Head of Technical Programmes, England’s Economic Heartland