How to plan transport systems that improve our quality of life.

A generation ago, planners tended to work behind closed doors with councils and policy makers, releasing reports to the unsuspecting public as a done deal. Today, we’ve seen a huge shift in how transport planning is regarded by both professionals and the public, requiring a very different approach that puts people at the centre of the process. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to do in practice, requiring dramatic changes in the sector.

Engaging early with the community and policy makers

Historically, transport planners were able to hide behind the veil of transport models, economic theory and vehicle movement charts. Now, we’ve had to come out from the shadows and engage more with people and communities, and their hopes for the places in which they live, work and play. 

Public consultation has become an influential part of the decision making process, requiring transport planners to do a lot more engagement, a lot earlier on, to get a feel for problems, pain points and what’s actually important to the people who will use the transport system.

Today, we see transport an enabler for achieving communities’ aims – a lever that can improve the economic and social quality of neighbourhoods with better social and land use connections, better places, better health and wellbeing. This means the question should never be about the solution – “Do we need a four-lane highway or a new trainline?” – but about what people actually want for their suburb or their city.

An important part of this process is understanding what trade-offs the community is willing to make. We may wish to introduce tree cover and green spaces that encourage people to walk rather than drive. But what if those design choices come at the expense of the on-street parking on which local shops depend?

In my home-town, Melbourne, we love the complex fabric of our inner suburb areas, where residential houses sit side-by-side with an eclectic mix of speciality shops and cafes. But it’s a wicked problem to design a transport system and streetscapes that meet all the needs of that matrix of different functions in such a confined area.

Making interoperability a priority

Until very recently, planners considered different modes of transport as discrete components of a city or suburb – with separate policy teams, separate funding, and separate providers. While this reflects how the industry operates, it’s not how people think about their journeys. We want to get from A to B at an affordable cost in the most efficient way. We don’t care who’s providing what system.

Today, planners are getting better at making our transport systems agnostic, with integrated payment systems and multi-modal hubs, so passengers can switch between taking a bus, tram or car. This also assists with resilience, offering fallback systems if one mode of transport goes down.

But now we need to look beyond transport systems to see how they integrate with the city itself. For example, we must consider stations and terminals, not just as the connective tissue of transport interchange points, but also as precincts. We need our train stations to be hubs that people live in and around, with shops, medical facilities and other community services.

Bringing disciplines together

Coming up with workable transport solutions that deliver community benefits requires collaboration between a host of different disciplines. Today, we are not just integrating land use and transport planning, but co-designing solutions with human-centred designers and behavioural economists – people who understand how human beings behave and respond to the different cues.

We can see this in action in Japan, where the extraordinary efficiency of the train network is the result of a multi-disciplinary approach that goes well beyond the basics of boarding indicators and audible announcements. Japan’s trains rely heavily on ‘nudge theory’ to influence passengers’ behaviour. Instead of harsh buzzers to signal train departures, stations use calming melodies, which studies have shown prevent injuries by keeping passengers from rushing. They also use ultrasonic sound, inaudible to older patrons, to disperse disruptive crowds of teenagers.

Using visualisation to cut through complexity

As we present new and complex ideas to communities and policy makers, planners are harnessing immersive visualisation tools, including augmented and virtual reality (VR), to help communicate how transport solutions will fit into a city scape and integrate with other systems. Being able to literally walk through a 3D, life size virtual model of an intended design allows people to more meaningfully compare different proposals. Today, this is possible without major cost, using $2 VR glasses connected to a phone app.

I believe our future transport solutions will be intelligent systems that involve a growing mix of conventional transport networks and disruptive mobility services. We can’t predict exactly what this will look like – and nor should we – because it will be designed with input from all the people with a stake in the outcome. But we can say with certainty that transport planning will be increasingly transparent, collaborative and creative.

I’m excited to see what happens next.

David is a key speaker at this year's ICE 200 Australasia Conference in Sydney which will be held September 6-7. Learn more about Beca's Infrastructure projects and how they're making everyday better here.


Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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David Silvester

Principal – Transport Advisory

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