Embracing uncertainty

It's that time of year, when we look ahead and try to predict what the future will hold. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of SYSTRA in the UK, across the company we've been thinking about the future and what it holds for transport planning. Here's our collective highlights.

Movie fans among you may have been noticed the sad news of the death of William Goldman, the legendary screenwriter famous for the phrase 'nobody knows anything'. It struck a particular chord with me because although Goldman was talking about what makes a successful film, of course, I sometimes feel that he might just as well have been talking about the marginally less glamorous world of transport planning.

Predicting the future is always a difficult and uncertain task, whether that means the success of a multi-million dollar blockbuster or the effects of a major new bypass in the West Midlands, but it's fair to say that transport planners have always had the edge over movie executives, in this one regard at any rate. Getting these things right about the future is how we plan, after all, and we have a lot more science to base our predictions on and a pretty good track record. But things are changing and changing more than is sometimes well understood. If we want to stay ahead of La La Land when it comes to future-gazing, we are going to have to do things differently.

The technological and social changes that planners are facing in 2018 are radically new. We are watching the emergence of Mobility as a Service – digitally planned and managed intermodal travel – but are still unclear what exactly it means and where it will go. A new generation of digital-savvy travellers are demanding more and pushing technological boundaries further. Autonomous vehicles come ever closer as a practical reality and social networking from car pools to bike hire schemes is becoming more familiar and embedded in our lives. We have tended to view these innovations as additions, details, but that is a mistake. They are beginning to re-shape how people view their towns and cities and what they demand and that, in turn, will change how the citizens of the future live and work and, therefore, what they need from their transport.

How can we build places that are fit for a future world of work and recreation that we may barely recognise? Even age-old challenges like parking provision are becoming radically uncertain. How does a council replace the finance from the parking meter? What happens to fuel tax revenues when electricity nudges aside fossil fuels?

Well, there is a way of doing it, but it will mean a profound change in assumptions and working methods for a great many people. Instead of asking 'how do we mend the problems we have now', we have to ask: 'what future do we want to create?' And the process for transport planners that will make that a question worth asking is scenario planning.

Scenario planning presents policy makers with a range of dynamic models of different transport ecologies responding to complex differences in structural and social variables. It requires transport planning to be considered as one element of a broad policy agenda that is not simply responsive to changing social patterns but seeks to drive and shape them. It makes sense of the complexity of the emerging world instead of denying it, and it works.

Unless we adopt new ways of working, we are going to build a future that is only fit for the past. Sometimes the only way to wisdom is admitting how much you don't know, as Socrates nearly said. But we can turn that weakness into a strength, if we embrace the right policy tools to do it. Unlike the movies, transport planning doesn't have to be a wild gamble, but if we cling to the old certainties, we may, ironically, make it one.

December 2018 marks SYSTRA's 50th anniversary in the UK.