The challenge for infrastructure is always to ‘predict the future’. Right now, this is more difficult than ever.
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We are currently in a state of flux, with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, the threat of recession, the impacts of the war in the Ukraine and the implications of living through a global pandemic.
In addition, we must consider how we are addressing pressing ongoing issues, not least climate change. However, for infrastructure there is a need to understand the longer-term impacts and what our needs will be in the future.
The challenge, and the opportunity, is how to identify the lasting legacies that will create longer-term change and take what we have learned to create infrastructure that supports resilience.
In times of uncertainty, the value of listening is even greater. Only by understanding how views, behaviours and priorities are changing across society can we make informed decisions.
What we’re seeing now
No clear picture
Over the last few years, we’ve had a barrage of potentially game-changing events, coming thick and fast, all with the potential to create a fundamental change in what we require from our transport infrastructure and how we think about the future.
Moreover, the speed of change and in the case of the Covid pandemic, the enforced change in transport behaviour, means that it is difficult to treat what we are currently seeing as a long-term trend with any confidence.
What matters to transport is how current events impact longer term forecasts and the confidence that decisions now will provide what we need in the future. While our transport networks are largely fixed in the short to medium term – building roads or rail is far from quick – how we use them can change rapidly.
The current cost of living crisis is likely to impact on choices made about transport, and this builds on a picture of new patterns of working, where we choose to live, and an economy trying to recover.
The other challenge, of course, is money. While the Government has made strong statements on committing to infrastructure spending, it’s clear there are some difficult decisions to be made about how to allocate funds. This introduces several risks for infrastructure, primarily how much will be available, when, and for what.
Without a clear line of funding and confidence that this will continue, it is difficult for infrastructure projects to make a confident start.
Ensuring fairness for all while meeting our aims
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published statistics that around 20% more adults reported an increase in their cost of living in March 2022 compared to November 2021. The most commonly reported reasons were an increase in the price of food shopping (90%), gas or electricity bills (79%) and the price of fuel (71%).
ONS data also suggests that lower earners are less likely to be able to take up hybrid working patterns. Between 27 April and 8 May 2022, 8% of those who earn up to £15,000 reporting hybrid working while 32% of those earning £30,000 to £40,000 reported hybrid working. Additionally, the youngest and oldest workers were least likely to hybrid work.
These few statistics alone throw up a wide range of questions for transport. Crucially, how do we address the needs of everyone and ensure that those most in need are not disadvantaged or negatively impacted by the route that we follow.
When we look at the larger picture, with a pressing need to make changes to reach net zero while supporting economic recovery and meeting the Government’s levelling up aims, we can see that there are conflicts that require difficult choices.
The transport sector constantly deals with complex and competing demands and balancing priorities. The challenge is how we reconcile those demands and priorities when we don’t know how and when they will settle.
A key issue the last few years has brought to the fore is the need to build resilience into our infrastructure provision to adapt and change. The cost of living crisis is another element that reinforces this.
While we may feel that the last few years have been unprecedented, we may be facing a future where climate change, new ways of working and living, and changing economic conditions across the world create issues that need a transport infrastructure that is capable of swift adaption to meet new conditions.
Do we need a new approach?
We may need to consider moving from the traditional ‘predict and provide’ model of transport infrastructure planning, which necessitates a level of certainty, to a model which takes account of where we need to be, driven by elements such as net zero, resilience and a clear vision for levelling up.
Our decisions can then be based on reaching those aims. This thinking has recently been put forward as a ‘decide and provide’ model by both Transport Scotland and Transport for the North in their approach to strategic planning.
Across our work in recent years, we have seen a call for greater engagement and listening from those we have engaged. This has been echoed in thinking from Government and key bodies such as the Planning Inspectorate, who are emphasising the importance of strong and demonstrable engagement as a key element of the strategic planning process.
During periods of crisis, it is even more important to understand how people are thinking about the future, how their priorities, behaviours and views are impacted by current events and whether they may change over time.
What can we do?
Consider the questions we are asking, and how we are asking them
- Engagement in a time of uncertainty and crisis means the data we gather about immediate views of current issues will necessarily be affected by the immediate events. We need to be thinking about asking more nuanced questions that can inform a long-term picture to understand the underlying priorities and vision that people have for the future.
- Asking more fundamental questions – not where the road should be, but what are the requirements that need to be met by the transport infrastructure and what solutions would best address those needs. The need for engagement early in any planning process is even more important now.
- We need to understand priorities – for example, are people willing to invest in alternative fuel vehicles now, or would they in the future, and what would impact that decision.
Continue to engage
- There are critical decisions being taken now on ways to address the cost of living crisis, from local spatial planning to government funding energy bill reductions. These will set the scene for more fundamental decisions about the transport we need. So, we need to be able to understand and evaluate the impact of these decisions, which are often short term, and how this is shaping the future of infrastructure. We need to listen, understand, and create an ongoing dialogue.
- There is a need to ensure that in time of crisis and pressure, decision makers don’t retreat from engagement and gathering views, particularly where there is so much that has changed – the old certainties are no longer necessarily true.
Engage in an inclusive way
- Understanding views across society can support decision makers to follow approaches and directions that align and are more widely accepted. It can provide confidence that the decisions being made consider the needs of people and communities.
- We can understand how people have reacted and how they have adapted. Infrastructure, as a ‘derived demand’, must particularly react and flex to the needs of those who use it. As something that can provide huge benefits and transformative effects, or create huge impacts and disadvantages, as a sector we must listen.
Accept uncertainty and aim for resilience
- Uncertainty can be addressed by understanding how people are feeling and acting currently to determine a) how to address the current impacts of cost of living, and b) to create infrastructure that mitigates potential issues in the future.
- There is a danger that we may not see immediate changes resulting from changes in infrastructure – but we need to be careful that a lack of immediate success isn’t a deterrent for delivering longer term benefits. Only by understanding how people feel, what is affecting their thinking, and what they may prioritise now and in the future, can we take informed decisions that stand the test of time.
- Ensure that we are developing in a way that provides resilience for the future, both in practical terms by creating infrastructure that can adapt to change, but also by facilitating the creation of resilient communities and reducing the impact of crises on those least able the mitigate those impacts.
- If we want to change how we approach planning transport infrastructure, moving to a decide and provide model, we need the understanding to inform the right decisions that reflects the priorities across all of society.
We need to plan now to create infrastructure that supports us in the coming decades and continues to support our economic development, quality of life and ambitions, as well as tackling the urgent issues. The cost of not taking the time to engage and properly listen cannot be underestimated.
Get in touch
Dan Barrett, Head of Infrastructure
E : email@example.com
W : www.traverse.ltd