Helping to Build Utopia? What Can 10 Years of ‘Smarter Choices’ Teach Transport Planners?

The article below was first published in Local Transport Today

Looking at this year’s Smarter Travel Live conference programme I suspect there will be much talk about the future of transport, intelligent mobility and smart cities.

Five years ago the conference’s focus was on ‘Rebooting Smarter Travel’ and we were just getting to grips with the Local Sustainable Transport Fund. In those five years much has changed, we continue to make progress but we also have an eye on the future.  We wonder what cities of the future will look like and we wait for the innovators and disruptors to make their next move. There are visions of utopia and alternative visions of urban chaos.  In all this uncertainty what should transport planners be doing? To help answer this question, SYSTRA’s annual Local Authority Smarter Choices Survey gives us some insight from the last 10 years and help us to inform what our role is going forward.

From the survey’s origin in 2008, Smarter Choices was defined as ‘[measures that] seek to give better information and opportunities, aimed at helping people to choose to reduce their car use while enhancing the attractiveness of alternatives.’[1] Therefore, the Smarter Choices Survey has always asked questions about the familiar; workplace and school travel plans, personalised travel planning, travel awareness campaigns etc. However, increasingly new and evolving measures now also feature. In 2017 the first question about Intelligent Mobility (IM) and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) was added to aid our understanding of how Local Authorities (LAs) are using emerging technologies to enable people to choose to reduce their car use whilst enhancing the attractiveness of alternatives.

In 2017 the survey received responses from 76 English LAs – a response rate of over 50%.

The pattern of smarter choices measures implemented by LAs has remained broadly similar since the start of the survey in 2008. Whilst new measures such as smart ticketing, apps and social media are gaining momentum, the popularity of workplace travel plans, public transport information and promoting walking and cycling have remained consistently prevalent over the last ten years with over 90% of LAs implementing these measures. LAs work with a growing number of partners from public transport operators to schools and workplaces to implement smarter choices measures. In recent years partnerships are increasingly being formed with the health sector and ICT providers.

Over the last 10 years the perception of the effectiveness of smarter choices measures has fluctuated.  Scepticism around ‘car clubs’ and ‘car sharing’ has often been noted with around 40% of LAs regularly viewing these measures as ‘not very effective’.  In 2012 and 2014, workplace travel plans were viewed as ‘effective’ by approximately 80% of LAs however, this fell to around 60% in the latest 2017 survey.  Interestingly, more innovative measures such as ‘smart ticketing’ and ‘use of apps/social media’ are viewed positively with only 10% of LAs stating they are ‘not very effective’ and in 2017 ‘smart ticketing’ was viewed as the most ‘very effective’ measure. There is therefore some evidence from the 2017 survey to suggest that the more traditional smarter choices measures such as workplace and school travel plans are increasingly being viewed as less effective whereas emerging measures linked to intelligent mobility and MaaS are beginning to be viewed very positively by LAs. And yet, whilst we could take these figures at face value, there are many examples around the country of excellent performing car sharing schemes, workplace and school travel plans to refute this conclusion. Therefore, another finding of the survey is that the effectiveness of smarter choices measures has much to do with short-term funding cycles creating sub-optimal impact through short-term programmes and poor staff retention.

 

[1] DfT (2005), Smarter Choices – Changing the Way We Travel’

In 2017, respondents were specifically asked about their activity in the area of IM and MaaS. Findings reveal that there is wide scale awareness of the relevance of IM/MaaS and yet despite this awareness, only 5% of LAs respondents are already undertaking IM/MaaS activities and the majority of respondents are yet to progress this work area.  For those LAs who are active, measures range from the use of apps to incentivise active travel to bringing together web based platforms to work toward a more seamless transport experience. Lack of knowledge is cited as a reason why some LAs are not taking the area forward and therefore there will be significant value in the 5% sharing their knowledge and experiences. Industry conferences such as Smarter Travel Live are therefore key.   

Whilst implementation of traditional and emerging measures continues, we know that key barriers to smarter choices remain. In 2017, the Smarter Choices Survey found that funding, lack of sufficient staff, cost to the public of using sustainable transport measures and lack of safe cycling routes were key barriers. Worse still, funding has been cited as the most significant barrier to implement smarter choice measures since the start of the survey in 2008 with the issue of funding increasing year-on-year; 61% of authorities declaring funding as a barrier in 2014 compared to 79% in 2017. When probed, whilst quantity of funding is an issue, many LAs cite that the key issue is short-term funding programmes that lead to difficulty in building long-term campaigns and the resulting loss of staff when funding rounds finish. Given these known barriers, in 2017 41% of LAs responded that work on smarter choices had decreased and 27% predicted smarter choices implementation would decrease in 2018.

And so, what does 10 years of smarter travel policy and implementation tell us?

We have learnt a lot in 10 years. With a secure funding stream we can effectively develop, implement and monitor smarter choices programmes and, we know how to engage and work in partnership.

We are moving into an area of significant change and the private sector are aligning themselves to take the area of smarter choices forward, particularly in the field of IM and MaaS but what is our role?

  • The survey was clear that some LAs need more knowledge. For LAs leading in this area, sharing and transferring knowledge (however limited) will be important to enable everyone to keep pace with the rate of change;
  • We are good at working in partnership and we need to do this more. Engaging with the sectors involved in IM and MaaS is key as these emerging measures offer major opportunities to help promote uptake of more sustainable travel choices. However, these measures also pose major risks if not steered. The risks are many; ever-expanding suburbs and congestion if driverless vehicles go unchallenged, less walking and cycling if routes are not safe or fit for purpose and lack of promotion of non-car alternatives if sustainable transport data is not integrated into data platforms.  

But, as we move forward, securing a long-term funding stream is vital – both for certainty and for retaining quality, skilled staff who can play these key roles. Engaging with IM and MaaS measures will be a long-term process and short-term funding does not help LA’s build the visionary programmes that we currently need.

Taking on these opportunities and overcoming the challenges is crucial if we are to ensure that as these emerging technologies come on-stream, they are harnessed in ways that deliver public benefits and shape the cities we envision.