Our experience since mid-March reminds us that there is nothing fixed about the need to travel or indeed the way we travel. Received wisdoms about our transport system are being challenged, and need to be challenged if we are to seize the opportunity we have to shape the future of transport. If we want to achieve a different outcome we must change our approach.
At the heart of our present approach is an assumption that more economic growth inevitably leads to more travel, and in particular more car travel. We design the future of our transport system on the basis of this growth and in particular on trying to accommodate the ‘peak hour’. Such is our focus on this one relationship we lose sight of, the needs of our rural communities, but in truth it is symptomatic of how our approach to developing our transport system is myopic.
In response to COVID-19 many businesses have adopted more agile and flexible ways of working in order to continue to deliver services. As customers we’ve made even greater use of e-commerce to bring services and products to our doorstep. We’ve seen measures being adopted to positively reduce the demand for travel in the traditional peak hour.
These responses have served to accelerate change within our transport system that was already underway. Just as we have seen the retail sector change fundamentally in response to changes in our (customer) behaviour, so the nature of travel is changing. As a profession we need to acknowledge that the traditional business model on which we develop solutions for rural communities (and indeed urban communities) need to change.
New solutions – many enabled by improved digital connectivity – will give individuals and businesses access to the services and opportunities they seek. The creation of hubs in rural communities offer the opportunity to create an office-like environment without the need to travel: indeed hubs could be at the heart of a place based strategy that revives a rural community. And with many organisations and businesses shifting their services to digital platforms there may be further opportunities to reduce the need to travel: remote healthcare monitoring might enable many to stay in their homes longer, leading to better quality of life and a reduction in health care costs.
As in all aspects of life there will be balances to be struck and the need to make choices: the rise of e-commerce might reduce our need to travel but results in increased demand for the freight and logistic sector.
Whether we are looking at a rural or an urban community, our objective should be to deliver place-based sustainable growth. Our decision making needs to be grounded in delivering a vision for the community: we need to develop the skills and capability to develop solutions that deliver that vision: and we need an approach to appraisal that is more rounded in its consideration of economic value alongside the need to achieve net zero carbon emissions and wider sustainability goals.
We are at a moment in time when we can choose an alternative way forward: but the window of opportunity is narrow: seize the moment and we can indeed look to shape tomorrow today.
Martin Tugwell - Programme Director Englands Economic Heartland and President CIHT.
Originally published in Smart Transport magazine in September 2020 - for more from Smart Transport see here www.smarttransport.org.uk