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The changing role of…transport planners

With the rise of new mobility services, driverless vehicles and big data, transport planners are having to learn new skills in order to provide flexibility for the future.

PlaceTech spoke to:

  • Paul Whittaker, associate at Vectos, transport planning specialists
  • Stefan Webb, director of digitising planning and standards at Connected Places Catapult, think-tank
  • Andy Passmore, executive director at BWB Consulting, engineering and environmental consultancy
  • Iwan Lloyd-Smith and Josh Dickerson of Deetu, data and technology provider

What are the new skills that transport planners will have to learn?

Paul Whittaker Vectos

Paul Whittaker, Vectos: Mobility is clearly still important, but data suggests that it’s the access to mobility that is now more desirable than ownership

Vectos: There are a lot of core principles, such as promoting sustainable development and managing demand, and design standards that have remained largely consistent for the last 10-20 years. These principles are unlikely to change and there will always be a need for transport planners to have an understanding and appreciation of land-use planning, how people move currently, and how they might want to move in the future. It’s not necessarily new skills that need to be learnt but perhaps just a greater emphasis on adaptability, flexibility, negotiation and innovation. In the last 30 years, driving licence ownership has dropped significantly amongst millennials and the proportion of 17-20-year-olds with a licence has also decreased. This reflects the changing priorities and values in society towards the car. Whilst mobility is clearly still important, it suggests that it’s the access to mobility that is now more desirable than ownership. The data suggests that won’t be a quick change, and each generation will continue to change, but this highlights how decisions about development and infrastructure need to cater for now and also provide flexibility for the future.

Connected Places Catapult: As transport data becomes more accurate, granular, and real-time, transport planners will need to learn how to analyse all that and keep one step ahead. More technology companies are thinking about ways to harvest data that could be useful for transport planners, so they need to stay on top of the game in terms of the new sources of information that become available to help them do their job. As more mobility technologies emerge, from your e-scooters to autonomous vehicles, they will need to think about regulation as well as transport policy. I think they will be linking a lot more with land use planners, architects and over time some of those roles will begin to melt into each other.

Deetu: Having individuals who are brought in not directly from a transport, planning or geography background, and have data analysis or geospatial skills is becoming more important. Companies like TomTom and Uber are releasing information for planners to extract and help them make strategic decisions, and it’s going to take some new skillsets to understand that and how to use them properly.

BWB Consulting: One of the key things that have happened over the past few years is the availability of Big Data. Historically our work would have been done with surveys of movements and such like. These days there’s the availability of phone data to show the distributution of traffic and people movements throughout an area. With increased computing power, more emphasis will be on making assessments more statistically representative than they currently are. At the moment you might do a one-day survey of movements, backed up by a week of surveys of overall traffic flows. In the future you could see that being monitored for a period of time, in real-time, and then being used to create models that are more sophisticated and representative of a particular situation.

Are there examples of tech already impacting the role?

Stefan Webb Future Cities Catapult Bw

Stefan Webb, Connected Places Catapult: Planners don’t have to be data scientists, but do have to be sufficiently inquisitive to pick apart a transport model or digital twin

Connected Places Catapult: There are more examples of tech being used such as digital twins, for transport systems, not only integrating them with the real world but with other infrastructure such as electricity and water. City Zenith is one example of a data visualisation platform. There are also more tools on the market that help evolve and maintain transport planners’ skillsets. Technology is one thing but having the skillset that helps you understand what’s going on is more important. Planners don’t have to be data scientists, but do have to be sufficiently inquisitive to pick apart what goes on behind a transport model or a digital twin and know some rudiments of software analytics and algorithms. Transport models have been in place for a long time, I think they’ll get both richer in terms of data and also more complex in terms of challenges that people will want to hone for transport models, such as asking what’s the impact if 20% of logistics deliveries are now by drone, or 30% of cars or taxis become driverless cars.

Deetu: The client, whether that’s the developer or the public, has a different expectation nowadays of how they consume information. Rather than just being presented with a big document full of technical engineering drawings, they want it to be easy to access, they want to get an app or a website to get their information. They don’t want to have to go to a public consultation to get the information. They want the information to come to them.

BWB Consulting: We’ve recently used a package that Deetu has developed called Explore, which allows us to use interactive presentations to discuss specific issues with specific individuals as they come into the public consultation. Historically, it would have been done with static boards or presentations, whereas now we are in a position where we might have iPads, to enable us to talk through the individual elements, and look at the general impact of the development.

Vectos: There are so many different examples of technologies are influencing how people are choosing to travel. An obvious one is ride hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, which have seen a big increase in licensed private hire vehicles in recent years. Whilst this still results in vehicles on the road, some previous car owners are choosing not to replace old cars which then has implications on infrastructure provision, such as suitable pick-up/drop-off facilities, and also on the overall demand for car parking, particularly in cities. An evolution of these initial ride hailing services is now starting to emerge with increasing use made of sharing ride hailing services such that they can potentially fill gaps in the public transport network. Intelligent communication of information is the key, which will only get better with the emergence of 5G and general access to data through new apps. More and more electric vehicles are visible on our roads and homes are being retrofitted with charging points on driveways. In addition, on-street charging points are being provided in cities and councils now require developers to provide a proportion of electric vehicle charging points as part of all developments.

What will be the benefits of going digital?

Connected Places Catapult: I think the benefits could be greater transparency both to transport planners, who should be able to more easily see and understand the assumptions about transport modelling, and also to members of the public and other decision makers. As with many professions like this, a transport planner might be quite insular in terms of running the transport model strategy and might be even pass it to someone else to decide. These digital approaches will mean that more people can see them, more people can query decisions, and increase efficiency overall.

Vectos: By getting the right mix of infrastructure and technology, there are huge benefits that could be achieved. In terms of personal mobility, people will still want to travel in such a way that their journey cost, both the financial cost and the value of time, is minimised. Technology via apps should be able to provide people with the best information so an informed decision can be made about how and when to travel. This principle also extends to business where the costs of employing staff, moving goods and providing services will continue to be key factors in any successful business plan.

Deetu: As we move closer to smarter cities and 5G, the ability to monitor outcomes is going to become far easier and more transparent. We will be able to see air quality and traffic situations in real-time.

BWB Consulting: The use of Big Data over time will mean that the modelling we do will be more representative, so we’ll end up with improved solutions, greater justification for them, and will based on continuous runs – what is the outcome based on a thousand runs of this model, rather than what we currently do which is a static model.

When do you expect to see the tipping point for adoption?

Andy Passmore BWB Consulting

Andy Passmore, BWB Consulting: There isn’t going to be a single point in time where there’s a revolution. It’s evolving all the time and being driven by political, social and environmental factors

Vectos: There are increasing numbers of early adopters, particularly the personal uptake of electric vehicles, and the Government’s ban on all new diesel and petrol vehicles is clearly a marker which will drive change, albeit gradual. Where there are perhaps more challenges is with developers and local authorities, some of whom may still not be aware of how the movement of people is likely to change in the future. There is so much research being undertaken across Europe looking at technology and mobility as a service (MaaS), but I get the impression that some people still perceive this to be a bit like Back to the Future. This is where our role as transport planners is to provide the link between the high-level research, emerging technological trials and the developers/local authorities designing, approving and building schemes on the ground.

Connected Places Catapult: The tipping point will be when the National Infrastructure Commission, which has created a Digital Framework Task Group to produce a national digital twin for infrastructure, releases it for adoption – which is still a little while away yet. Further to that, no-one quite knows when the tipping point will be for the adoption of driverless vehicles or a greater public use of drones, but again that’s not too far away. Some of these can happen quicker than expected so I think it’s always important that a transport planner looks at and is thinking about the implications of new modes of mobility, even if they’re not quite round the corner yet.

Deetu: Transport planners are probably slightly behind where people think they are, in terms of adoption and how prevalent these technologies are. People are expecting planners to be able to do far more, such as live transport information because they receive that in their daily lives so often. For example, Google Maps will tell you when you need to leave and what’s the traffic like in real time, but putting that into citywide transport information is still a little behind. Planners are almost playing catch-up with what the public, politicians and industry perceive as where they are. It’s also very regionalised. You can go to one area and data is really prevalent for air quality but then you go to another and the sensors aren’t there because that city or region hasn’t got the funding to implement them.

BWB Consulting: It’s starting to happen but there isn’t going to be a single point in time where there’s a revolution. It’s evolving all the time and I think it’s being driven by political, social and environmental factors.

Who will be the winners + losers?

Connected Places Catapult: Transport planning is a lot more digital ready because of its focus on data and models, and when you have that focus there’s a redrawing of the boundaries between public and private, thinking about what it’s going to cost to do transport planning in future and how much can public authorities do themselves. As with many technologies, there are lots of estimates by all the think-tanks about AI is going to eat whatever percentage of jobs, so there will be some losers in there if it is feasible to automate certain activities and get a computer to do it.

Vectos: If transport planners can continue to be adaptable, flexible and innovative then we will all benefit. It sounds a bit cheesy but there are numerous benefits if the transport networks of the future can continue to provide suitable options to facilitate travel for a variety of journey purposes. Technology and availability of information will allow us to make better informed decisions about how and when to travel, it will also reduce the need to travel in some instances thereby removing pressure from existing networks. Emission-free vehicles will lead to improvements in air quality locally and if developers and local authorities can design and implement infrastructure that provides future flexibility then we will all be winners.  If done properly, I’m not sure there will be any losers, perhaps those that just don’t win as well. These might be developers or local authorities that are unable, for whatever reason, to adopt and embrace technology as part of design development, and also some transport planners who are unwilling to see the potential there may be for flexible, innovative and forward-thinking design of future transport networks.

What does a transport planner’s daily routine look like in 2040?

Joshua Dickerson Deetu

Josh Dickerson, Deetu: A transport planner’s daily routine could be completely flipped just on the basis of autonomous vehicles

Vectos: I put this question to the floor in our office and the first thing one of my colleagues said, “will there still be transport planners in 2040?” There are increasing numbers of people who think they can plan transport, particularly for development applications, but there is a real skill to be able to do this well and in doing so provide the best advice to developers and local authorities whilst appreciating the potential implications of their decisions on future generations. People will always need to move for a variety of reasons and there will still need to be suitable networks upon which to complete their journeys, and I think the role of well-informed, experienced transport planners will arguably be even more important in 2040, given the constraints we have in terms of available space and the management of existing assets. Encouraging the next generation of transport planners will also be critical to ensure that innovation and adoption of modern technology is promoted wherever possible. There will still be a requirement to visit site locations to observe how people move, not just rely on Google Earth, although it is a powerful tool. Technology such as live data apps, drones and Bluetooth provide options for new data collection which will require new methods of analysis and interpretation. Flexible working will provide options to work remotely but personally I still see a role for an office environment to be able to share and develop ideas.

Deetu: I think a transport planner’s daily routine could be completely flipped just on the basis of autonomous vehicles. If, for example, we’re not designing roads to have the safety requirements they have today because people are not driving, that one arm alone could completely change the type of skills that we require in terms of designing infrastructure and development that – you might not need traffic lights for example.

BWB Consulting: In 2040, I think driverless vehicles will be commonplace in the UK. The fact that these vehicles are connected can talk to each other will change the way we plan, as you can get a lot more capacity out of our major road networks because they can travel much closer together. It’ll be gradual, and there will still be people driving but I can see us working on areas which only autonomous vehicles can access.

Connected Places Catapult: In 2040, there will be more mobility solutions so a transport planner will be thinking and having to deal with the regulation between different modes of transport as well as trying to manage lots of systems that are seeking to optimise the operation of those different modes.

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