How transport authorities should plan for an uncertain future?

By Glenn Lyons Mott MacDonald Professor of Future Mobility at UWE Bristol

For decades, the transport sector has, broadly speaking, honed its approach to planning for and investing in the future around the forecast-led paradigm of, predict and provide,: anticipate society’s future demand for travel, and especially car use, and invest to ensure there was enough capacity to serve that demand.

Then the digital age collided with the motor age towards the end of the last millennium and significant changes started to happen in terms of how society functions and how people behave. The collision has also brought a tsunami of technological developments and prospects for future innovation. The forecast-led paradigm was in trouble. Trouble made worse by a climate crisis which meant ‘business as usual’, including that for transport, had to change.

There has been mounting discontent with the idea that we can simply continue trying to predict future demand and serve that demand by making supply-side investments. It has become increasingly clear that transport does not merely serve society. It shapes society, just as society shapes transport. What we need is for transport to support the type of future society we would like to see. In place of the forecast-led paradigm of ‘predict and provide’ comes a growing appetite for a vision-led paradigm of ‘decide and provide’: decide on a preferred (rather than predicted) future and provide an approach to help realise that future. However, crucially, decide and provide is also about a need to negotiate the deep uncertainty over the future brought about by drivers of change that are beyond our direct control.

This is a lot to take in. Its very uncomfortable for individuals and organisations. It means we need to change how we think about planning and investing in transport and we need to evolve the tools and processes we use for decision-making support. And this needs to happen in a time of limited resources, especially in the public sector.

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