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Our transport future – Time to take stock

Very little planning has been carried out in anticipation of the profound changes we should expect in the future. What little has been done has been carried out piecemeal, without any appreciation of the changes that should be expected in the social, political and economic system as a whole.


Very little planning has been carried out in anticipation of the profound changes we should expect in the future. What little has been done has been carried out piecemeal, without any appreciation of the changes that should be expected in the social, political and economic system as a whole. It is time to take stock of the current situation, develop some scenarios for the future we need to plan for, develop goals and a framework and priorities for plans and programs to achieve them. But any programs must be system based and outcome focused with measurable goals consistent with international targets and timelines based on reputable scientific evidence.     

Current Thinking   

Transport planning and thinking, despite the overwhelming evidence of global change, dominated by climate and environmental change more generally, continues to be based in large measure on the assumption that life will continue in most respects as business as usual. In other words, current thinking assumes global environmental change is just another background issue that can be considered separately with grudging acceptance that our future will need to focus on greener energy such as electric cars and other technological advances, and there is plenty of time to transition which can be achieved by incremental change.  

This mindset is clearly articulated by the State government and its big build program but it seems to be a prevailing view amongst many transport planners. It is also driven by an expectation of continuing population and economic growth.  This mindset must change. The reality is none of the above are valid and reflects a lack of understanding of the gravity of the environmental situation and the profound implications for every aspect of human activity, including transport.  

Transport – a Derived Demand  

Transport is a function of the social, political and economic environment which is constantly changing. Covid has demonstrated how easily it can be disrupted. Many businesses will fail to adapt and disappear under pressure of climate and global change. This must be anticipated in our transport planning. For example there has to be a question mark over the future of the airline industry and its ability to operate with zero carbon emissions. This will have a cascading impact on the local economy, local transport demand and supporting infrastructure in the future. There will be other industries that find a place in a new and hopefully more sustainable world but it is not clear what these might be or transport services that would be required to support them.  

Transport projections based on continuing population and economic growth must also be challenged despite convictions held by most politicians, planners and economists to the contrary. Prediction of longer term transport needs is very difficult if not impossible in a world of increasingly rapid change but there are limits to growth and it is most likely these have already been exceeded. Whilst some growth will occur in the short term it will almost certainly be short lived and inevitably reversed before long as the planet’s biosphere becomes increasingly degraded and supports fewer people. This scenario can be expected to apply increasingly to all societies throughout the world. This will have profound implications for all societies throughout the world – social, political and economic and must be reflected in transport plans for the future.  

A Transport Philosophy For The Future  

Transport must be designed as a “system” that is flexible and can adapt rapidly to the changing environment it supports in a way that meets environmental goals. This will require a mission statement with measurable targets that can be monitored and used to apply pressure for change and hold governments and their agencies to account. But it cannot be developed in isolation. It must be developed as a “service industry” that is an integral part of the broader social, political system of which it is part.   

The immediate implications for transport planners should be for people to travel less, less often and more efficiently, to use and manage our existing stock of infrastructure as effectively and efficiently as possible before building more. Government must develop policies and a framework to make this happen. Whilst technology may provide some assistance in achieving these outcomes its prime function must be to promote behavioural change. Reliance on technology alone will not solve our transport problems, or environmental problems either. Many of the technologies envisaged will take time – time we do not have, and need to be tested to ensure they work. More likely, as has happened so often in the past they simply make the situation worse contrary to expectations by politicians, economists and planners today. This has been confirmed many times in the past and has been one of the dominant factors that has led to the collapse of many civilisations, and has been the main reason for our global environmental crisis today. But in the current environment the rate of technological change may not be fast enough either – a critical consideration at a time when the need for change has become urgent.  

Prof Johan Rockstrom has described our situation as so serious it will require an effort equivalent to the Apollo program to achieve success. Scientists have given us this decade to get our act together, to transition the whole world to a new logic. This is a challenge humanity cannot afford to fail – to do so would put us on a hothouse trajectory that would result in a mass extinction event that would lead to our ultimate demise as a species.

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