Designing for humans: why sustainable economic development must be about enabling access, not increasing movement

By Ben Plowden

Transport will be at the heart of the sustainable economic development agenda. As the dust settles on the Autumn statement, the Government clearly wants to signal a continued commitment to investment to improve transport services in cities and regions across England and to support economic development through infrastructure upgrades and improvements.

Yet a drive to increase mobility will come with significant negative environmental impacts. The construction of new roads and railways generates carbon and disrupts natural habitats. And even with the electrification of road and rail, transport is likely to remain the largest emitting sector of greenhouse gases for some time to come. These impacts are at odds with the urgent need to address the climate emergency and restore the natural world. The challenge is to develop a transport system that supports social and economic development, while staying within global environmental boundaries.

Access not movement

So how can transport leaders and policy makers square the ambition to level up with the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and create a more sustainable economy? The key lies in recognising that sustainable development and levelling-up hinges on enabling access to goods, services and opportunities, not on increasing movement.

Here are three things that can propel this shift in thinking forward:

Put demand forecasts under the spotlight

Investment decisions for new transport infrastructure are often based on forecasts of growing demand for mobility. Yet the future is uncertain and growth in demand is not guaranteed. The COVID-19 pandemic proves the point. The dramatic change in working patterns caused by lockdowns has driven a longer-term (and unpredicted) reduction in demand for mobility, particularly for commuting. While not everyone can work remotely, for many, reducing the movement required to access work opportunities has improved their quality of life.

Likewise, new technologies are changing the way people access goods and services. 3D-printing, for example, means goods can be produced much closer to where they are sold, reducing the demand for freight transport. Likewise, services delivered online – from learning to healthcare – reduce the need for people to travel to access them. As a result, the adoption of a “decide and provide” rather than a “predict and provide” approach to transport planning is gathering momentum. Oxfordshire County Council recently approved the use of the former approach to help meet its goals around a net zero transport system by 2040.

Focus on outcomes, not outputs

The transport sector has traditionally focused on delivering outputs, such as new infrastructure and more transport services, to support and enable forecast increases in movement of people and goods. Yet what if the goal of enabling greater access could be achieved without either of these outputs? In many cases, it can.

The ‘triple access model’, for example, proposes a balanced system of physical mobility (transport system), spatial proximity (land use system), and digital connectivity (telecoms system). Bringing opportunities and people into greater proximity, and ensuring high-speed, reliable broadband services, drives down the need for mobility (and the associated carbon emissions). People can still access goods, services and opportunities, they just don’t need to travel so far to get what they need or want.

In the UK, communities designed to reduce the need for mobility are still relatively rare – partly because the assumption that increasing movement is the only way to improve access is so deeply ingrained. However, Poundbury in Dorset and Derwenthorpe in York both offer fresh thinking on how future communities could be shaped. Elsewhere, one NHS Foundation Trust – Northern Care Alliance – is doing just that. ‘Maximising accessibility’ is the driving principle behind its new Community Diagnostic Centres. These enable people to have diagnostic tests locally without having to make the journey to hospital – proof that less movement can sometimes equal better access. As part of this, it’s vital to consider how existing infrastructure can be optimised to achieve desired outcomes, avoiding the instinct to add more.

Increase collaboration with strategic leadership

Improving access to goods, services, and opportunities in a sustainable way is a big system challenge. It can only be solved by effective collaboration across sectors. This means connecting the decision-makers who influence the start and end of journeys, with the transport providers who connect people to those activities.

Yet strategic leadership is currently lacking. While national government has spoken of transport decarbonisation, bus reform, rail projects, and freeports, and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales both have targets for reducing the overall number of kilometres travelled by road, a cohesive and integrated multi-modal UK strategy that aligns all of these is conspicuous by its absence.

Any overarching strategy must recognise that sustainable economic development will be achieved by improving access, not just by increasing movement. This is not just a pipe dream. Transport for Scotland’s plan to reduce car travel by 20% by 2030 recognises that achieving this goal means acting “to address the location of services and facilities and to enable increased online access, as well as supporting people to change the mode by which they make existing journeys. This reduction will require cross-sectoral effort that goes beyond transport policy”. This is the triple access model in practice.

Give people what they need

In many cases, new or upgraded infrastructure and better transport services are what people need to access goods, services and opportunities. Yet in a changing world they are no longer the total solution, nor one that is sustainable.

Investment to support sustainable economic development needs to begin with a focus on people and what they need to access opportunities for work, study and leisure. Only then should consideration be given to think about how increasing movement can be part of the solution.

About the authors

Ben Plowden PA transport expert

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