By Graeme Low
Very few people tell their careers advisor that they want to be a Transport Planner. I always feel the dread when asked about my job as the response is usually, ‘oh, you count cars for a living?!’ To which I respond “yes, and I record the colour of the vehicles too!” I always wonder where this opinion originated from and suggest that it was at least partly a result of the reputation of my colleagues in the 60s and 70s, with their urban motorways and new towns segregating pedestrian and car movements.
While the principle is a sound one intended to minimise the potential for conflict, maybe the execution lacked a bit of foresight. I am thinking here of the installation of a plethora of underpasses which pedestrians were extremely reluctant to use due to the unsavoury characters who were only too delighted to make use of the facilities!
Transport Planners have historically prioritised the car over every other mode of transport. This legacy is one we are trying to change, albeit with limited support from the public sector – even though planning policy has been encouraging sustainable travel for the last 20 years or so. The primary focus of supporting a development’s planning application is identifying the impact it will have on the adjacent highway network, rather than ensuring a development can be accessed on foot, by cycle and by public transport.
This approach is driven by the public, as one of the main things everyone understands about transport is that new developments generate new vehicle trips. We are therefore required to focus a lot of our energies into developing measures to mitigate a development’s impact on the highway network, accommodating the needs of the car as we did in the 60s and 70s.
What we should be doing is accepting there will be increased levels of congestion, either generated by a single development or by a number of developments introduced over a period of time, and instead of providing additional network capacity, use the congestion to our advantage by encouraging greater use of sustainable modes of travel. This will enable transport planners to focus on the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, and prioritise them over the needs of the car driver. Unfortunately, this will require a change in the attitudes of local highway officers, councillors and the general public – a change which is likely to be years away from becoming reality.
In the meantime, we can design transport infrastructure within developments to prioritise sustainable travel over car travel, but it is a piecemeal approach to a strategic problem. I am keen to go back to a time before the private motor car was affordable, where the public travelled on foot, by cycle and by public transport. Indeed, it took over 50 years from the invention of the car before it achieved priority over other road users.
While the car is invaluable for certain journeys, sustainable modes of travel can offer viable alternatives and transport planners continue to extol the virtues of leaving the car at home. We are never happier than when we are working on a strategic project which can encourage a significant shift from the car to sustainable modes of travel. Projects such as the reopening of the Borders Railway linking Edinburgh with Tweedbank (in the Scottish Borders, unsurprisingly) is estimated to remove around 60,000 peak period car trips from the road network every year. In the meantime, we will keep plugging away trying to make a big difference, one small step (and pedal) at a time.
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