The Confidence to Invest Despite Uncertainty

Like many in the transport sector, I am finding that the priorities of customers and partners are changing faster than usual. It is not just the high levels of inflation affecting the viability of business plans, or the changing political preferences for investment, or the restructuring of the economy after the pandemic, or the growing levels of conflict between different sectors in society, but the lack of hope and confidence that many currently feel. We all need hope in a future we can believe in. Do we have the confidence, autonomy and skills we need to navigate the uncertainties ahead?

The perspective of Scottish poet Robert Burns has been one of my mottos in life "a man of independent mind just looks and laughs at a' that". Being sufficiently independent to overcome the factors that hold us back, is not about ignoring our dependencies but managing them. A huge proportion of transport investment has been devoted to sustaining car dependency, but a time of social and economic change is an opportunity to invest differently. I have always found John Farrington's clear separation of structural car dependency from conscious car dependency useful, because it helps us focus on the investment choices we can make in the short and longer term.

Accelerating sustainable investment choices

Structural issues such as patterns of land use can be changed over time, but the frequency of people moving house is far higher than the rate at which houses are built or replaced. As we emerge from the pandemic, we can look at investment differently. Rather than houses and vehicles being the biggest investments people make, we can increasingly invest in more sustainable choices, not least decarbonised transport and the renewable energy to power it.

I enjoyed David Metz's new book "Good to Go? - Decarbonising Travel after the Pandemic" for its pragmatic analysis of what can reasonably be achieved. His underlying message was that we have left it too late to achieve a pain free transport transition to a decarbonised future. However, there is a parallel positive narrative that we have been transforming our transport implementation capabilities over the last 30 years. Simon Pemberton's retrospective on over two decades of evolving community planning reminds us how far we have come developing processes to manage the interactions between public bodies and communities. We need to turn these projects into investible opportunities much more quickly, as the smart cities and smarter travel projects have been demonstrating.

Prioritising social and business innovation

What is stopping us doing better? Perhaps the greatest distraction has been poor management of technology and money. Our technological capabilities have been far in advance of our management capabilities for many years. Some organisations have used new technology as a smokescreen to promote other goals. Deploying any reliable system that fits the needs of our business goals, helps us to ensure that our activities align with our business aims rather than depending on any specific technology. We also have many choices about whose money to take for investment, so what matters most is to source investment from those who support our goals, rather than those who seek undue influence over outcomes.

Perhaps the greatest public misunderstanding of the transport sector is the false perception that actions are largely driven by financial profit. In my experience most transport operates at margins that few other sectors would accept, with workers being motivated largely by their love of trains, buses, bikes and cars and social causes. However, the public are not wrong when they observe weaknesses in the regulation and design of our business models. We have allowed ourselves to become dependent on others who profit from us, not least the political capital and financial profits associated with many large transport investments.

Serving people, place and planet

Customer relationships are potentially the most important lever through which to manage transport's value chain but most transport operators do not even know who is travelling. As a sector we have become increasingly dependent on others, since the GP referring a patient to hospital, or the teacher safeguarding their pupils, or the shop attracting customers, usually have a better idea of how people travel than the transport sector itself. Where transport operators and authorities develop partnerships with the organisations managing trip attractions, they become far more able to manage their value chain, such as the close integration between service providers and many car parking and taxi operations.

In the wake of the pandemic, people have been able to make huge changes in their lifestyles, and are still optimising new choices. If the transport sector can help people make new investments and choices consistent with better, more sustainable lifestyles then the future for the transport sector is bright. Nearly 20 years ago Danish professor Peter Naess rightly highlighted that the much talked about optimism bias towards high value transport infrastructure projects was far less important than the pessimism bias that stopped us investing in smarter travel projects. If we can link measurable transport goals through new smart business models to add value for people and places, then the investible projects will have far better returns.

Will our pessimism bias mean that we continue to try squeeze even more value out of our fossil fuel dependency, car dependency, and land value dependency. Or can we use these uncertain times to build the confidence we need to invest in new fairer and more sustainable systems. Reducing the influence of those who try to make us dependent on them for political or financial reasons frees up resources for investment in things of far greater value.

Derek Halden is a director of DHC Loop Connections, and secretary of Scotland's transport think tank