How to become a transport planner: Hard hats, hi-vis and houmous

There are many transport planners who end up in the profession and wonder how they got there. But there are also transport planners who chose the profession deliberately.

What inspired me to become a transport planner?

I am one of the latter. And before you ask, I wasn't obsessed with train sets as a child. I was never taken train-spotting or to a heritage bus rally, and I didn't even have any family or friends working in transport. But I think I know the reason. I was a child in Scotland in the 1980s. I witnessed the decline of reliable public transport options, and the relatively quiet streets I could cycle on rapidly disappearing under the weight of rapid car growth.

My mother was Swiss, so I would be carted off every summer to a magical land of clockwork public transport providing reliable access to both wonderous tourist sites and to my many great aunts. On one of these summers of freedom, the penny (or swiss franc) must have dropped in my head.

After that I don't recall thinking about the subject very intently. At least not until that obligatory teenage moment of visiting the Careers Advice centre. Living in Germany at the time, I remember vividly how we went to a cavernous library where we could search for information about all kinds of weird and wonderful professions. So here I set about searching under the term 'transport'. In this library I found plenty of information on how to become a highway engineer or even a railway engineer. There were glossy brochures and even videos of men wearing hard hats and hi-vis jackets. They all looked satisfied at supervising the construction of some new piece of infrastructure. (And, yes, at that time they were all middle-aged white men. Although I hope the German civil engineering bodies have since updated their materials).

The only problem was I didn't want to be an engineer. I was reasonably numerate but struggled with algebra and had little interest in building stuff. It wasn't the bridge or the vehicle that fascinated me but the understanding of spatial relationships and travel behaviour choices. I wanted to know about geography, human behaviour, and political and social sciences. Some years later I did eventually find the way to Loughborough to study transport planning. The degree course featured lots of transport economics (enough to prepare me for WebTAG), transport policy, marketing and operations.

How do we inspire the next generation to choose transport planning?

But with Transport Planning Day drawing near, I look back and ask myself what we can do to sell the idea of transport planning to teenagers thinking of their career path?

Well, we could focus on certain subjects like geography and target those pupils more passionate about the sectoral model of urban structure than Palaeozoic rock formations. But focussing solely on those with an interest in spatial planning would miss many potential candidates with other skills relevant to transport demand management, marketing and transport modelling.

To reach a wider audience of this age, recent discussions at the Transport Planning Society (TPS) have highlighted the importance of videos and social media materials about the profession. It was even suggested we could make a transport planning computer game. As Transport Planning Day draws closer, please think about your journey to becoming a transport planner. Ask yourself what you personally can do to increase awareness of the profession among teenagers. Ideas and pledges of support on a postcard to TPS please.

How can we speak more passionately about what we do?

...and the houmous? Well that's adult education.

Now that I am a transport planner I face the situation of how to behave at a dinner party where at some point in the proceedings somebody will pass the houmous and ask "so what do you do?". Upon hearing you're a transport planner, they will look bemused at first before either:

(a) assuming you are solely responsible for their unreliable public transport;

(b) regaling you with a tale of some sin committed by 'the Council' that causes them mild annoyance on their journey to work, or

(c) ranting for the next hour about parking.

Yes, I'm sure we've all been guilty of stumbling over our response to this question and suffering the consequences. Therefore please repeat after me: I hereby solemnly swear that next time I am invited to a dinner party I will think of the TPS principles of transport planning and come prepared with a concise, understandable and impassioned description of what I do and why it's great!

Martin Wedderburn is an independent transport planning consultant with 15 years' experience in transport planning, policy and analysis. His experience covers many aspects of transport planning including walking and cycling research and policy, public transport planning, managing transport modelling studies, demand forecasting, economic appraisal and streetscape design. Committed to a genuinely multi-modal view of transport, he ensures that all modes including walking and cycling are considered in transport planning, analysis and appraisal. He strives to ensure that the full range of spatial, wider economic, social and environmental impacts of transport are assessed fairly in investment decisions.

Martin is a Transport Planning Society (TPS) Board Member with responsibility for events and one of the coordinators of Transport Planning Day 2018.