Are the best transport policies not about transport at all?

It’s been a week since I attended the excellent Zemo annual conference, and the thing that I’ve been thinking about most as a result is travel demand management (TDM). Chris Stark, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change, delivered a really great overview as ever, and he particularly drew attention to the purple wedge at the top of this graph – the bit about ‘reducing demand’. He understandably expressed concern that the government, and the wider transport professional community, is making a lot of noise about things like EVs, but reducing vehicle miles gets very little attention.

CCC balanced pathway for transport emissions

These concerns were echoed earlier this year when the RAC Foundation did some research into whether we could reach our transport emissions targets without reducing vehicle miles travelled. Their conclusion (I’m paraphrasing) – in theory ‘yes’, in practice ‘no’.

I should quickly point out that there are some subtle differences in what is meant by TDM in different contexts. In the RAC Foundation research, the focus is on reducing the number of miles travelled by cars. However, that could be achieved in four different ways:

  1. Making the same trips, but switching some of them to other modes (e.g. rail, bicycle)
  2. Making the same trips, but making them shorter (e.g. shopping closer to home)
  3. Combining trips so fewer are made (e.g. shopping on the way home from work)
  4. Eliminating trips altogether (e.g. working from home)

The thing that’s interesting about that list is that as you progress from 1 to 4, it gets less and less about ‘transport’ per se, and more about just how we live our lives. Transport planners think a lot about modal shift, and if they build good relationships with land use planners then they think about co-locating housing, schools, healthcare and shops to reduce trip length. (And if trips are shorter, it’s easier to achieve modal shift.) However, to my mind TDM in its purest sense is really about the second half of that list, the things that eliminate trips either by combining them or making them unnecessary.

So – to finally come back to my headline, maybe the best transport policies are the ones that eliminate or combine trips, and they often aren’t ‘transport’ policies at all. Covid has put working from home firmly on the agenda, but I can think of several other examples, such as:

  • The NHS rolling out technology that allows sufferers of chronic conditions to manage their health at home rather than making frequent hospital visits
  • Schools carrying out parent-teacher consultations online
  • Employers offering more flexible hours so that employees can attend appointments, shop etc. near their workplace during the working day
  • Rural post offices offering a wider range of services

Personally, I think the takeaway from Chris Stark’s presentation is that a dose of holistic thinking is long overdue here. Transport planners at all levels of government need to be talking to other departments to make these policy links more explicit, maybe even to fund them. A case could be made that we should take money from the roads budget and use it to finance national broadband rollout instead. We should definitely be delivering active travel policy through a pooling of resources for public health and transport. I’m quite sure that in many, probably most, cases policies to reduce travel overall will save time and money for both individuals and the public purse.

For those of us who work in transport, and the politicians tasked with deciding on policy, it’s easy to forget (or choose to ignore) that transport is mostly a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Given the choice, most people would enjoy a pleasant walk to their local high street via a park or café, but would happily avoid having to drive in rush hour because that’s the only way they can pick up a prescription. Mobility should exist in service of quality of life, not to its detriment.


RAC Foundation research

Could we establish a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ to manage our transport systems?

When buses and trains were privatised in the UK, we stripped away old bureaucracies that were perceived to be slow-moving and inefficient. Now, decades later, most of the country has a mish-mash of different operators failing to provide a joined up service, and government is managing increasingly complex tendering arrangements. The one place where transport seems to be working is London – with a public bureaucracy, TfL, doing the planning.

Last week I had occasion to contemplate this issue at the Transport Policy Futures day, part of the launch on the new ‘transport innovation centre’ at the Transport Systems Catapult. One speaker was outlining his prescription for transport policy in cities, suggesting that a central authority like TfL is a necessary condition.

Now I’m no fan of privatisation, and I agree we need some sort of joined up planning for transport. But wouldn’t it be rather depressing if we ended up reinstating a bureaucracy we dismantled not that long ago, swapping the current problems for the old ones?

I have a friend who’s a big fan of the ‘lean’ start-up methodology, which encourages entrepreneurs to just get started with the ‘minimum viable product’ to see what happens. I wondered – could we apply some of the same thinking to managing transport? Could we establish a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’?

How do you come up with a better way to manage transport?

How do you come up with a better way to manage transport?

Perhaps rashly, I threw my new phrase into the debate, and it seemed to catch people’s imagination. So much so, that later in the day I found myself round a table with seven other people trying to establish what a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ might look like, and how we could make it happen.

To be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud. After all, it’s a catchy phrase, but trying to slim down bureaucracy is something politicians have been grappling with for ever – a new sound-bite doesn’t address the fundamental problem. But on reflection, maybe, just maybe there is something in the idea.

First of all, we need a ‘lean’ approach to managing transport more than we used to, because the pace of change is faster. It’s not so much the infrastructure itself, roads and rails still take years to plan and build. But vehicles and fuels are changing rapidly, and the way we use them more rapidly still. The row between London’s black cabs and taxi app Uber, which TfL sits in the middle of, is just one example. Then there are car clubs, car-sharing, bike share schemes, and even driver-less cars a few years away.

Second, there are some examples of what it might look like. TfL has taken a pretty ‘lean’ approach to managing its data, and all the things that could be done with it. They’ve made the data open to anyone to use (anonymised of course), with a common API, and just let app developers be as creative as they like.

Another good example is the redevelopment of Times Square in New York. The transit authority (yes, a big bureaucracy) started by just spraying paint on the road, and putting out plastic chairs and planters. The idea was to quickly see how people might use the space, and it worked. More permanent alterations followed once they actually observed what happened. The same approach could be used for junctions, putting in temporary traffic lights, or a roundabout made of cones and spray-paint. And also for bus services – how about just running a new route with a couple of mini-buses, and seeing who uses it, or indeed creating a ‘bus on demand’ service, to see where that demand exists.

Of course, a lot of the existing examples are more about the services themselves than about the bureaucracy you need to manage and plan things. But even in this regard, there is perhaps a model. One of our discussion group explained that in Melbourne they have a system where the transport authority acts like a broker, receiving data on transport demand, even individual requests, and then receiving offers from various transport modes and providers to meet that demand.

So, is there any substance to the idea of a ‘minimum viable transport bureaucracy’, or is it just restating the old ideological battle of public vs private provision? To be honest, I don’t know. But our group at the Transport Policy Futures event did agree we’d like to see it tried. Specifically, we’d like to find a local authority with a vision for the transport service it would like to see, and then put them in a room for a couple of days with the people who run those ‘lean start-up’ weekends. The results could be really interesting.


More about the Transport Systems Catapult:

More about ‘lean start-up’:


The elephant in the room part 3: Making time to slow down

So, to recap parts one and two. If we make transport more efficient, less polluting, or generally more pleasant, then people just travel more and wipe out the benefits. We need to manage the overall demand for travel. We can do that by changing planning so that the things we need are closer to us, and by reallocating space and resources to the modes we prefer, like walking, cycling and buses.


Are we nearly there yet?
© Jonaldm | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos

But, and it’s a big but, even if we created perfect towns and cities, with everything nearby, we might still all travel just as much. That’s because we also have to think about the time people spend travelling, and the fact that humans are mostly creatures of habit.

Ever since Tanner suggested the idea in 1961, there’s been an ongoing academic debate about the idea of ‘travel time budgets’. In the 1970s empirical research by the likes of Szalai and Zahavi backed up the idea that all over the world, people spend roughly the same amount of time per day travelling – about an hour.

This caused quite a bit of excitement, suggesting as it did that maybe the amount of time we’re prepared to spend travelling is somehow ‘hard wired’ into human beings. Since that original paper various theories have been suggested, and plenty of other researchers have questioned the data, saying there’s more variation within and between populations than has been suggested.

What does seem to be agreed on however is that at the individual level, we do tend to be quite resistant to changing how much time we spend travelling. A look at the national travel survey for the UK (2010) shows that travel time has remained static for the last 15 years, at just over an hour per day, while the number and length of trips has varied. And if you think about it, that has some pretty far-reaching consequences for how we think about managing the overall demand for, and impact of, travel.

Suppose we drastically shorten many of our journeys, or provide really fast, efficient trains, or use the internet to eliminate journeys altogether? Well, the evidence suggests that on an individual level, we’ll probably just make other journeys to use the travel time we saved. The likelihood is that if we shorten ‘essential’ travel, to work, or that hospital appointment, it will be replaced with leisure trips, maybe occasional longer trips to see friends or relations.

Here’s another thought, transport economics is almost entirely based on the idea of time savings. The case for a new road will typically be based on the idea that, for example, (a) each motorist will save 30 seconds off their journey time, (b) the average person’s time is worth £12 per hour to the economy, and (c) 200 million journeys per year will be made on the road. So, each 30 seconds is worth 10p, and the road is therefore worth £20 million per year to the economy.

You might think this is nonsense, because when you boil it down to the individual motorist, that 30 seconds is unlikely to really make any significant difference at all to their productivity. And I would agree with you. However, that hasn’t stopped government using the same method to justify investing billions in high speed rail.

But that logic is weakened still further if you assume that for each person, travel time per day will probably remain constant.

The upshot of all this is that we need to sustainably ‘reallocate’ any travel time that we save by speeding up or eliminating trips. It’s just the same as the need to reallocate road space if we want to ‘lock in’ the benefit of some motorists switching to other modes.

What might this look like? Well, having freed up time, if people are going to make extra ‘discretionary’ trips to use that time, we need to make sure they don’t choose to make those trips by car. We can make it attractive to walk and cycle for pleasure, to visit friends and leisure facilities. We can invest in extra capacity on the railways, rather than speed – given that you can now work, watch a film or surf the net on a train journey, why do we need to spend billions making that journey slightly shorter and massively more expensive? And we can stop chasing our tails building new roads.

Ultimately, perhaps what we need is a ‘slow travel’ movement, a bit like the ‘slow food’ movement? A shift in the focus of transport strategy, away from speed, and towards making travel healthy, low impact, and fun.

[P.S. One thing not addressed here is the impact of ‘outsourcing’ our shopping trips to delivery vans, via internet shopping. I think that will have to be the topic of another post.]

The elephant in the room part 2 (of 3): A journey through space (… and time)

So, to recap part one, if we try to ‘fix’ transport without thinking about overall demand, we’re running to stand still. If we make cars more efficient they use less fuel, and emit less pollution, but since they’re cheaper to run we drive more miles, and we’re back where we started. If we ease congestion, people drive more. Even making public transport better has a similar effect.


‘It’s gridlock around here.’
‘Just be glad there aren’t any more elephants!’
© Roadbully | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

So what’s the answer? Well, like it says in the headline, this is about space and time. If we want people to travel less, thinking about where we put things is a no-brainer. But, and it’s a big but, we also have to think about time – because it turns out human beings are not the ‘utility-maximising’ decision makers that economists like to think we are.

So, the obvious factor first … space.  There are two elements to this – putting stuff closer together, so we don’t need to travel so much, and how we allocate space on the road, to ‘lock in’ changes in travel behaviour.

Ever since geographers first started thinking about urban sprawl in the sixties, we’ve been debating its effects on transport. Hardly a week goes by without a media story about out of town supermarkets, which we all drive to, killing off the high street. But equally, there are more and more stories about urban renaissance, high density living, and those out of town supermarkets coming back into town centres with ‘metro’ stores.

Essentially, a key element in constraining our demand for transport is to change planning, to favour denser communities, that can then economically support localised services. Lots of people have written about this, but for a good discussion try this chapter from Carbon Zero by Alex Steffen. The problem with changing spatial planning is that it takes a long time to have an effect.

A less discussed side of the ‘space’ debate is how we allocate road space to different modes of transport. Reallocating road space is the often forgotten key step in creating ‘modal shift’ – i.e. getting people out of cars and into cycling, walking or buses.

Let’s say you live in a city where all the main roads in are gridlocked from 8-9am. What happens if the council launches a big push for people to use park-and-ride, or cycle in to work. A year later there are thousands of people riding the bus, or cycling in, but the gridlock is just as bad – so what happened?

Well, the answer’s simple, as some drivers switched to other modes, other drivers took their place. Congestion usually means pent up demand – there are always people who choose to make some trade off to avoid a certain level of congestion (e.g. by driving to work really early, or not travelling at all), and if the congestion level falls, they re-evaluate that decision.

If our aim is to have fewer drivers, and so less pollution, then the uncomfortable truth is that gridlock is our friend. If we succeed in getting some drivers to switch to the bus or bike, we have to reallocate the road space they were using to those modes, by putting in bus and/or bike lanes, changing priorities at junctions, removing parking or whatever. The net result will be the same level of congestion for the remaining drivers, but that means they won’t be joined by any more.

The big problem is that promoting cycling, or investing in bus services, can be seen as promoting ‘choice’, but taking space away from cars is less of a vote winner. So elected councils only tend to do half the job. Note that the thing that will actually decrease the congestion level is to increase the monetary cost of travelling at that time, with a congestion charge. That’s because the driver’s decision on whether to travel is based on both time/stress and money. Of course congestion charges haven’t exactly proved an electoral favourite either.

So, there are things we can do to decrease transport demand, and lock-in modal shift, by thinking about space, but they take time and may not be popular. However, in part 3 I’ll explain why we also have to think about travel time and human psychology, because even changing the layout and roads of our cities may still see us running to stand still.

The elephant in the room part 1: Running to stand still

There are lots of ways we can reduce the emissions from transport, and many of them will also make getting around more pleasurable, more efficient and easier. And therein lies the rub – because if something gets easier, we’ll probably do more of it.

The elephant in the room

It makes him scratch his head too!
© Tjenner | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Let’s take a really simple example – you replace your petrol car with an electric one. Great, now the pollutant emissions for each mile you drive have been reduced (by how much is a debate for another post). And you save money too, because electricity is much cheaper than petrol.

Now you’ve invested all this money in buying your electric car, you can drive around for next to nothing, and feel pretty smug about it too. So, all other things being equal, you’ll probably drive more miles. In the jargon it’s called a ‘rebound effect’.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. In reality, our travel behaviour is influenced by all sorts of complex factors, but the simple fact is, travelling has costs and benefits. If we reduce the costs – time, money, stress – then people are likely to travel more to grab more of the benefits. That might mean buying a nicer house that’s further from your job, or making more leisure trips.

None of this is rocket science (now that would really increase total miles travelled). But when the solutions to our transport problems are debated, how often do you hear serious debate about reducing, or at least managing, the overall demand for transport?

Whether it’s hard-shoulder running on the M6, biofuels for aviation, high-speed rail or electric cars, the implicit assumption is that we can reduce the impacts of our current transport patterns. But time after time, we find that by the time the latest ‘solution’ is implemented, its benefit has already been negated by an increase in total miles travelled.

The roads protesters of the 90’s understood this, a central part of the case against the ‘roads for prosperity’ programme was that new roads just lead to more traffic. But that argument rarely strayed beyond the professional transport community – the media were only interested in tree-houses and Swampy, and the politicians only axed the programme because they realised it was going to cost a fortune in security guards. (It looks like we’re about to see a re-run of that scenario, but I doubt the debate will have moved on much.)

So what’s the answer? Will we forever be running to stand still? Transport emissions remain stubbornly high, and I would argue that rebound effects are a large part of the reason. Without a serious debate about overall transport demand we’ll never make progress.

There is work going on to address the issue, but it’s hardly part of the mainstream. At an event recently I found myself talking to someone from the Department for Transport, and I was delighted (and surprised, I admit) to discover that she was part of a team looking at overall demand management. It’s a good sign, but the cynic in me doubts whether they’ll ever be listened to seriously by the ministers.

In part two I’ll go on a journey in space and time, to consider how it might be possible to make transport better without making us want more of it!