Scheme led planning – tail wagging the dog?
Like in other areas of life, is anything in transport black or white? Or can transport and its associated problems be better described as ranging from translucent to opaque?
While many of us within the industry appreciate transport’s complex nature, every man and his dog outside it (and some within!) has their own strong opinions on transport, often based on a cocktail of misinformation, conjecture and vested interest.
Given wider social, economic and political influences over decision making processes, this presents significant and often unappreciated risks to investment decisions. For those schemes that are implemented, some are often either ineffective, inappropriate or wasteful – think M3 motorway, or indeed certain other elements of the Irish national motorway network!
Even more frequently, time, effort and money are wasted on transport schemes that are subsequently abandoned prior to either partial or full delivery – think Western Rail Corridor, the proposed Thames Estuary airport in the UK, and recently abandoned high-speed network expansion in France.
How have these schemes emerged? Many through scheme led planning, whereby transport schemes are developed by an agency or authority as part of their on-going design functions. Issues can arise when a scheme which emerges is latched onto by a mixture of political, business or media interests. Where this occurs, a scheme can gain sufficient momentum to represent an unstoppable force, irrespective of its absolute or relative benefits to society. Like a doctor dealing with the symptoms without knowing the illness or understanding the patient’s needs.
So how can we most appropriately support effective investment planning decisions by Government? The key is to look beyond transport! Too often the tendency is to focus on narrow transport impacts; however this approach overlooks the relationships between transport and wider societal outcomes, namely economic recovery and growth, social interaction and inclusion, health, safety and the environment. These relationships are complex and will vary both spatially and temporally – it is therefore essential to identify appropriate evidence sources in support of their determination.
By looking at transport in this way, we may not be able to support ‘black or white’ investment decisions; however we can focus relentlessly on the desired outcomes, and bring sufficient clarity to support informed discussion among stakeholders, and ultimately support and justify decisions by Government.
The Department for Transport Tourism and Sport’s ongoing Strategic Framework for Investment in Land Transport (SFILT) appears to be Ireland’s first attempt at such a planning approach. SFILT’s emphasis is on the economy, which is unsurprising given the challenges facing Ireland on the short to medium term. If it succeeds in exposing transport’s relationships with the economy, and in determining the type and scale of capital investment, SFILT has the potential to eliminate ‘tail wagging the dog’ planning approaches, which have been commonly pursued to date.
In this context the industry should stand squarely behind the Government because such an approach can be politically difficult, particularly when elections beckon and voters transport instincts can be short term and myopic.