Expertise in Coordination Can Enable the Sustainability Transition

How can the organisational barriers to scaling sustainable transport approaches be overcome in day to day practice? The challenge involved in transitioning to a zero waste circular transport economy can seem daunting, but capabilities are expanding rapidly. For most elements within the transport system, well established technologies now enable sustainability transitions to be accelerated following the processes in standards such as PAS2060 and PAS2080. Construction and maintenance of roads and railways, manufacture and recycling of vehicles, and operation of transport services all need to change. What will drive the change?

The current transport economy recognises only part of the economic benefits of transport, so it is actually quite hard to find economic arguments against sustainable transport. The inertia in the system is associated with short term finance and uncertainty about doing something new. Former Bank of England Governor illustrated the problem so well when he said "Budget choices are often described in terms of sustainability of debts but they are really often about the sustainability of people's livelihoods". For example anyone running a bus depot, and involved with the transition to electric buses, recognises that sustainability is about helping every member of staff transition to delivering value in the new zero waste economy.

The good news is that leading practice in market design, co-ordination theory, and human capability already shows us how to manage the changes. Currently transport markets have compound failures. It is not in anyone's interest that these market failures remain, but national governments seem unable to navigate the transition through thorny social, equity and pricing issues.

Successful transitions depend on government recognising that their real power is being able to delegate to the people and organisations with the capability to deliver. If it is not possible for government to set equitable sustainable prices top down (e.g. for carbon emissions), then they can enable markets to thrive bottom up, such as tariff structures for road use in Low Emission Zones.

Whoever has the capability to lead change can be empowered to deliver. Sometimes these capabilities are in local authorities, sometimes in local community groups and sometimes in business and other enterprises. The growing casebook of examples of coordination demonstrate how to enable transport system design by using the available capabilities appropriately.

For example, we are now generating renewable energy at less than 2 pence per kWh. Even allowing for the costs of storing enough energy to ensure a constant supply in peak periods, the power for transport has become incredibly cheap. However electricity market regulation has been unable to catch up, partly due to long term purchase and supply agreements underpinning the economics of legacy electricity generation systems. Community energy is finding ways round these challenges in many locations across the country, such as the Comrie Croft business and leisure hub in central Scotland which powers electric vehicle charging points using renewable energy. If a small business can save 85% of its energy costs, then the impacts of replicating this sort of approach with tens of thousands of businesses across the country also saving money, would be transformational for transport markets and business competitiveness, whilst building more sustainable, distributed and resilient systems.

Regional transport partnerships in Scotland have also been experimenting with ways they can manage coordinating functions. For example in the Highlands, the NHS has been working with HITRANS to co-design the locations where healthcare should be provided to minimise staff and patient travel for healthcare. HITRANS has identified that 20% of travel demand for outpatients can be saved whilst at the same time saving NHS operational delivery costs. Through a programme that started in 2016, the partnership is helping to plan new service delivery locations for health services across the region. The work in the Scottish Highlands shows how stronger support for a national programme of site based accessibility plans for all healthcare locations, could go a long way towards coordinating manageable action towards travel demand reduction aims.

Sustainable transport remains a jumble of initiatives, and national plans for net-zero have little chance of success without better coordination of social leadership. The capabilities to succeed often emerge in the most unexpected places. Distributing agency unleashes capabilities that top down leadership would never have discovered. Far more attention needs to be paid to the mechanisms through which action can be led by those with the capabilities to succeed.

Coordination is still often seen as an optional extra by transport authorities and operators. Leadership on transport coordination functions remains with organisations with partnership building remits such as economic, community, regeneration and transport partnerships. Empowering these organisations and communities to coordinate thousands of small changes can collectively deliver the big changes needed. National governments may be surprised how fast the transition to sustainability happens when they start to view business models for coordination as the bedrock of sustainability.

Derek Halden is a director of DHC Loop Connections, and secretary of Scotland's transport think tank His recent paper scoping options for governance reform in Scottish transport is here