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

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