Who will be the first local authority to cross the Rubicon?

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 21st January 2021 by Professor Laurence Pickup.

The Rubicon was not a large river for Julius Caesar to cross in January 49 B.C. The river flows from the Apennines in Central Italy into the Adriatic Sea, close to the modern resort of Rimini and in those times it marked the Northern boundary of Roman territory. However the significance of that simple action has gone down in history – a point of no return – ‘the die are cast’ as Caesar himself said as he marched his 13th Legion south on Rome – a challenge to the entrenched orthodoxy of the Roman Republic.

Crossing a modern Rubicon also takes courage, strength of purpose, foresight and a difficult challenge to orthodoxy. In our profession, the challenge to meet climate change and sustainable development targets requires the crossing of a political and professional ‘Rubicon’ – so who is ready for it? So far, I think we seem to be testing the water with our toes rather than getting properly wet.

2021 and COP26 are upon us. This year there will be much professional posturing and additional target setting focused on achieving our low carbon future. However, is the embedded ‘predict and provide’ culture in our profession capable of delivering transport’s contribution to our low carbon future – in my opinion, almost by definition, no. In the last few years, an alternative ‘Vision and Validate’ (V&V) approach has emerged that set’s the low carbon vision and then develops a policy pathway to deliver it. Among both public and private sector stakeholders in our profession, V&V is increasingly being seen as a breath of fresh air.

Will Vision and Validate be enough? – It is a very important and essential step forward but it also has to be encapsulated within a wider mind-set that is centrally focused on low-carbon, sustainable development and accessibility. We have to fully embrace the reality that mobility in the 2020s will not be solely physical but ‘Phygital’ – physical and digital. What we do going forward has to fully embrace both dimensions within an integrated policy – and have a department that addresses both dimensions. Twenty years ago if I wanted something, in most cases, I had to travel to get it – i.e. transport was the ‘first question’. In 2020, transport emerges as the ‘third and then fourth questions’. First question, can I do it online, second question, can I do it online and have it delivered, third question, I have to travel but is it available locally and finally, I have to travel further so what is the most sustainable way I can do that. Have you calculated the potential trip saving from implementing policies and strategies to achieve these successive stages? Of course there will be many caveats but the impact will still be significant.

Putting the primary emphasis on phygital mobility – the 4-question approach – and trip avoidance strategies will provide a better chance of achieving zero carbon targets than a simple reliance on ‘transport’ policies per se. And yes – develop a strong diversity strategy in parallel to ensure fairness and inclusion. In 2020, we have the opportunity to move from ‘transport’ to ‘mobility’ to (Phygital) ‘accessibility’, emphasising the derived demand and the primary goal to reduce the need for a trip.  We have been here before in the 45 years of my professional lifetime. However, within a dominant ‘predict and provide’ transport-planning paradigm born of a post-war age, previous attempts to put accessibility at the forefront of our thinking have always failed. Perhaps the 2020 COVID eruption, like all eruptions, can produce the necessary energy to change direction and produce the necessary green shoots. We are almost 50 years on from the ‘Changing Directions’ report of the Independent Commission for Transport. I first read this excellent work in 1975 and re-reading it recently underlined to me (sadly) the continued relevance of its arguments half a century later.

We now have the possibility to provide opportunities for lifestyles where a large number of trips are avoided and, in situations where trips have to be made, that they are ‘internalised’ within the community  – emphasising walking and cycling modes and prioritising the needs for all generations to be able to socialise – what Susan Pinker calls ‘The Village Effect’: The so-called 15-minute community but adding a strong phygital component.

The challenge to local authorities in the UK and internationally is this – who will be the first one to cross the Rubicon and establish a Department of Phygital Accessibility, within which a transport team would blend with a digital access team. Putting such an accessibility team within a transport department would not be sufficient – a total change of mind-set is required. The primary objectives would be (i) to reduce trips and (ii) to keep trips local and sustainable. This year’s pandemic has opened eyes to the substantial opportunities for this, and the things we need to bear in mind when rolling-out such a policy.

How close are UK local authorities to opening a Department of Phygital Accessibility and reshaping their transport department? I would be interested to hear from those that are considering such an option. Who will be the first to have the foresight to cross this Rubicon?

About the Author

This post was written by Professor Laurence Pickup. Professor Pickup is International Director at Vectos and Honorary Professor of European Transport Policy at the University of Aberdeen.