Transport Appraisal: A Dose of Reality

Transport Appraisal: A Dose of Reality

By Keith Mitchell

Amid feverish speculation – not about Brexit for a change - but about the DfT’s consultation on transport appraisal, the question on everyone’s lips at the Landor/UCL’s Transport Appraisal Seminar on 19 September was, how far will the DfT go? Will they really listen to the impassioned pleas from the transport planning community for radical change?

Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that we should be downhearted. It seems to many, (if the evidence of the seminar is anything to go by) that there is the beginning of some real recognition that changes are afoot – and that these changes will inexorably require there to be serious methodological changes to the appraisal process – just perhaps not all at once.

Why is this? It’s because the calls for change are now coming from the establishment, private sector promoters, as well as practitioners and academia. Not everyone holds the same views (this is transport planning after all!) but the general thrust of comment and observation is all in the same direction. There is now wide recognition that there have been major changes in travel patterns, and that these are set to continue as technology, policy and behavioural responses lead to substantially different, and unexpected outcomes. We are working in a world of far greater uncertainty, and we need to work out how to make transport investment decisions in this context.

This seminar was notable for another reason – and praise should go to the organisers for this – it made a particular effort to embrace a wider audience. While the promotion of transport projects through the appraisal process was a topic of conversation, so was the promotion of housing and employment. For many, this is the main priority, with the pressure to deliver new housing and economic growth (not least in the shadow of Brexit) continues unabated.

Development planning done wrong (and the view seems to be that it often is) - risks saddling new communities with inflexible, car-based lifestyles, with poor social, health & wellbeing and environmental outcomes. A pity therefore that Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) weren’t there to join in this debate. Until this becomes a combined endeavour, we will not solve the appraisal conundrum – how do we get both the land uses in the right places in relation to the transport systems, and the right transport systems supporting new communities?

A key part of this problem is that we need to be discussing both the Planning Process and the Appraisal Process together. Without this, we are not going to be able to make the breakthrough we need. With recent changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Transport Appraisal consultation being seen as completely separate challenges, this is simply not going to happen. Even so, those of us on the day did our best! So here is my view about the key messages from the day:

  • There is an over-emphasis on the Benefit to Cost Ratio (BCR) in the Economic Case. This has to change. The rationale for the project set out in the Strategic Case should be the key;
  • A good Strategic Case needs to be set against a clear vision and objectives, ensuring that resulting infrastructure supports the intended outcomes from development;
  • The vision needs to cross sector, and able to shape the future, moulding technological and behavioural change to meet the needs of future communities, not the other way around;
  • We must do more research and post project evaluation, so that we can become more confident about planning and designing for sustainable outcomes;
  • The whole process needs to be de-mystified and made more accessible for non-technical stakeholders and decision makers;
  • Whilst all this is relevant to transport appraisal, there is an equal and related urgency to address the assessment and appraisal of development. The same need to put a vision for Places First and then to plan, design and deliver in line with this. Without making this fundamental change, we will be unable to prevent development being built in the wrong place, in the wrong form, or to deliver healthy, sustainable communities – fit for the future.

PBA, now part of Stantec's Places First campaign is making this case, whilst others are also working hard to bring about change, for example the CIHT Better Planning, Better Transport working group which is working with a range of planning, development and transport stakeholders to bring forward new guidance. We may not see the wholesale changes to transport appraisal needed to set the process within a connected planning and appraisal system, but we can hope that we are now starting to take baby steps towards this position.

Keith Mitchell

Keith Mitchell

Director - Community Development and Infrastructure

  • UK
  • 07770 698156