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“The ethics of transport planning” - Prof Stephen Potter talks at the HCDI seminar May 29th 2009


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This presentation will explore the ethical issues behind what appears to be a technical design process - that of transport planning decisions. It will draw upon the transport/land use designs explored in Britain’s new towns (and Milton Keynes in particular) which help to highlight the ethical decisions involved.

This will illustrate the way that the design of towns and cities affects our travel behaviour and constrains our ability to choose to travel in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Indeed, we can get locked into unsustainable travel behaviours and feel powerless to behave otherwise. This leads to the now prevalent negative attitude towards transport policy initiatives and often outright opposition to sustainable transport developments.

Urban design professionals argue that high density settlements are the main way that sustainable transport choices can be provided, as such designs produce conditions which make for good public, and also suppress car use. However, although such an approach is possible in major conurbations and city centres, this is a difficult and contentious approach for suburban Britain. For most places ‘big city’ design solutions are not politically viable.

Perhaps we should be looking to more innovative approaches. These could blend a variety of new measures, such as the ‘smarter travel’ initiatives as well as new emerging technologies. However these require a different way of doing transport planning to the traditional ‘big infrastructure’ transport policy approaches. New physical design approaches often require the redesign of the processes and structures to implement and manage them, and this may be the key barrier to success.

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“The ethics of transport planning” - Prof Stephen Potter talks at the HCDI seminar May 29th 2009

  1. 1. The ethics of transport planning Stephen Potter Professor of Transport Strategy The Open University Human Centred Design Institute May 2009
  2. 2. Warning <ul><li>This is a ‘think piece’ presentation NOT a fully worked out research results-type seminar </li></ul><ul><li>Seeking to explore ideas and get some feedback </li></ul>
  3. 3. Ethics in design <ul><li>Ethics are often formulated as concerning individual decisions – personal morality </li></ul><ul><li>But there are collective institutional and structural ethics – clear examples are legalised oppression and unjust systems (slavery, exploitative trade relations) </li></ul><ul><li>This has for long been recognised (e.g. in the Bible, institutional oppression is condemned - Amos 2: 6-7) </li></ul><ul><li>There is a tendency to see structural ethics as being resolved at a political level to leave the design practitioner free of worries. </li></ul><ul><li>Such a view is untenable and the ethics of design is a key area </li></ul>
  4. 4. Designing transport systems <ul><li>Transport and urban design is often portrayed as a technical process that operates within a politically determined framework that sorts out the ethical side. </li></ul><ul><li>But we seemingly technical design decisions can have a major ethical dimension </li></ul><ul><li>This presentation explores this issue regarding transport and urban design </li></ul>
  5. 5. Ethical rebound effects <ul><li>Our institutional systems can produce social or environmental injustice e.g. people campaign against environmentally-damaging structures, such as roadbuilding or investment assessment systems that undervalue environmental damage. </li></ul><ul><li>But, individually ‘moral’ decisions can collectively produce structural injustice. For example </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>driving our children to school to protect them from danger collectively produces danger to others </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Collectively, high car use can cause social isolation for those without cars </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Promoting low carbon cars can reinforce a carbon intensive transport system </li></ul></ul></ul>
  6. 6. Symptoms of structural effects <ul><li>Leads to injustice and oppression of the vulnerable </li></ul><ul><li>Denial or downplaying of unethical consequences – or claim that they can be addressed by other means (latter sometimes possible – but usually an excuse) </li></ul><ul><li>Perpetrators portray themselves as victims (often seen in oppressive regimes; ‘persecuted motorists’) </li></ul><ul><li>Traps people in unethical behaviour – makes it hard to be moral (sustainable). People lose hope. </li></ul><ul><li>Causes people to tempt others into unethical behaviour </li></ul><ul><li>So it involves how the designer-user system interacts - which may be more than current design ethics thinking covers </li></ul>
  7. 7. Transport <ul><li>There is a growing awareness of the negative systems effects of transport trends and policies </li></ul><ul><li>Social Exclusion/Inclusion is now a big issue for transport policy </li></ul><ul><li>As our economic and social systems have adjusted to a high car-dependence lifestyle, increased mobility has led to isolating some people – particularly the poor, elderly and children </li></ul><ul><ul><li>They are restricted to a limited (and usually poorer) range of employment, shopping, health services, housing locations etc. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The same structural processes produce environmental degradation </li></ul>
  8. 8. Transport Planning and social justice <ul><li>There are some flagrant examples of unjust transport planning (e.g. Robert Moses’ Wantagh Parkway design in Long Island to exclude buses used by blacks and poor) </li></ul><ul><li>But Transport Planning always has an ethical dimension – even if it is not as obvious as this </li></ul>Low bridges to stop 12’ high buses using the Parkway
  9. 9. Transport/Land Use System <ul><li>The layout/design of towns and cities significantly affects our travel choices – and ability to travel more sustainably </li></ul><ul><li>Big planning decisions bring the choices we make to the fore – but they are there all the time in everyday behaviour and decision making </li></ul><ul><li>The social and environmental ethics involved are most obvious for big, new developments </li></ul><ul><li>New towns in 1970s and Ecotowns today are prime example </li></ul>
  10. 10. Transport/Land Use design of the New Towns <ul><li>The 1960s/70s debate over the design of New Towns actually was very much transport-related </li></ul><ul><li>Largely forgotten now – but we are returning to the same issue (with Environment having a much increased emphasis) </li></ul><ul><li>Worthwhile taking the long view </li></ul><ul><li>The transport/land use design of Milton Keynes illustrates well the situation and ethical challenges </li></ul>
  11. 11. Milton Keynes urban design principles <ul><li>Urban structure to be flexible - providing ‘freedom and choice’ and allow for growth in consumption in 21 st century </li></ul><ul><li>Key aspect was to facilitate ‘saturation’ car use </li></ul><ul><li>Low density (27 ppha) and dispersed land uses, served by 1 km grid of dual 70mph roads (‘Modified Los Angeles system’) </li></ul>
  12. 12. <ul><li>Urban designs for public and private transport are ‘diametrically opposed’ (Jamison and Mackay, 1967) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>One person’s freedom can be another’s chains… </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Less obvious than Robert Moses’ Wantagh Parkway design, but just as effective in excluding people </li></ul></ul>Urban design conflict
  13. 13. Public transport-oriented urban design <ul><li>1967 Runcorn design sought ‘social inclusion’ through a design to facilitate bus operations and pedestrian access </li></ul><ul><li>Car user needs then fitted into this structure </li></ul>
  14. 14. Rediscovering Runcorn(!) <ul><li>21 st century environmental imperatives and need to manage road congestion has led to a rediscovery of the Runcorn idea </li></ul><ul><li>Thames Gateway Fastrack Busway </li></ul><ul><li>Cambridge guided busway-linked developments designed to similar principles </li></ul>
  15. 15. An unethical deceit? <ul><li>In contrast, in 1971, MK opted for an entirely car-oriented design </li></ul><ul><li>Probably because all other aspects of the design fitted needs for economic growth and ‘leisure’ society </li></ul><ul><li>But MK Development Corporation claimed that the new town would have a public transport service so good that it would provide a real choice to car users. </li></ul><ul><li>Hidden away in a technical supplement was the admission that the ‘selected land use plan’ meant that only a service of the ‘minimum level necessary’ could be achieved without very large subsidies. </li></ul><ul><li>Was this an unethical deceit? </li></ul>
  16. 16. Resolve design/ethical conflict by technical innovation and finance? <ul><li>With vast economic growth anticipated, ample public funding was expected in the future to subsidise buses </li></ul><ul><li>Innovative demand responsive buses were thought to be able to operate well for dispersed demand in a low-density city </li></ul><ul><li>Dial-a-Bus tried 1975-80 </li></ul><ul><li>So tried to resolve the urban design dilemma through cash and technology. </li></ul>
  17. 17. Milton Keynes’ hidden Transport Crisis <ul><li>Hope of resolving ethical dilemma through cash and clever technology failed </li></ul><ul><li>Dial-a-Ride needed high subsidy and was soon abandoned </li></ul><ul><li>1986 bus deregulation rendered subsidy policy illegal </li></ul>
  18. 18. A negative legacy amidst success <ul><li>Milton Keynes’ urban design has proved a very successful design that accommodated economic and social changes very well </li></ul><ul><li>But transport is MK’s major failure </li></ul><ul><li>a hostile operating environment for buses – the poorest service for any UK settlement of 250,000+ </li></ul><ul><li>Under 5% of local work trips are by bus </li></ul><ul><li>Walk and cycle use is exceptionally low, despite segregated routes, as low density produces long trip distances. </li></ul><ul><li>Town is highly car dependent - over 80% local work trips and 50% of school trips by car </li></ul><ul><li>There is no freedom not to use the car – and roads are starting to get congested </li></ul>
  19. 19. Reforming Car City <ul><li>Today the design for Milton Keynes would be viewed as environmentally irresponsible and socially divisive </li></ul><ul><li>Current plans to expand Milton Keynes include densification, reworking some grid roads as bus corridors and medium density expansion areas served by 20-30mph bus-priority ‘city streets’ </li></ul><ul><li>Still essentially suburban but with denser centres </li></ul>
  20. 20. Sustainability opposed <ul><li>Move away from the design ethos of ‘the city built for the car’ is widely viewed with horror and derided </li></ul><ul><li>Even introducing 50mph speed limits and traffic lights on Grid Roads are viewed as unacceptable </li></ul><ul><li>The predominant view is that no alternatives to car use are possible and that the existing car-dependant design is so good it must be retained </li></ul><ul><li>There is no awareness that there even is a problem </li></ul><ul><li>Improving bus services etc. seen as separate from the overall transport system </li></ul>
  21. 21. Petitioning for unsustainability <ul><li>2008 Petition to retain car-oriented design ( ) attracted thousands of signatures and big local support </li></ul><ul><li>May 2009 residents petitioned to ban buses as they felt they lowered the tone of their exclusive estate </li></ul><ul><li>Even blockaded buses with their 4x4s to make their point ….(oppressors portray themselves a victims) </li></ul>
  22. 22. Too late to be ethical? <ul><li>Fudging the ethical issue in the past has led to situation tumbling out of control </li></ul><ul><li>‘Unsustainability’ is now so engrained it is portrayed as the sensible choice </li></ul><ul><li>People widely feel there is no alternative (powerless) </li></ul><ul><li>The case for unsustainability seems to be winning – trapping further thousands into an urban design that denies them the choice to travel sustainably </li></ul><ul><li>This may look extremist – but the issues thrown into focus in Milton Keynes are going on everywhere and raise fundamental issues </li></ul>
  23. 23. Barriers to sustainable suburbia <ul><li>Is there only one model for sustainable transport? – built around the operational needs of high-capacity public transport systems? </li></ul><ul><li>MK throws this dilemma into focus… – MK’s liveable suburbia is what has made it so socially and economically successful. </li></ul><ul><li>Is it impossible for suburbia to have sustainable transport? </li></ul>
  24. 24. A more flexible approach? <ul><li>Is a different model is needed for suburbia? </li></ul><ul><ul><li>e.g. emphasis on local access, non motorised trips, innovative public transport systems (PRT?) and packages of ‘smarter’ measures (travel plans, public cars etc). </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Not just sustainable urban design and investment, but institutional, financial structures and regulation. Our institutional structures make sustainable innovation hard. </li></ul>
  25. 25. Attitudes and perceptions <ul><li>MK – an anti-environmental aberration or a microcosm? </li></ul><ul><li>The reaction to MK’s expansion plans throws into focus attitudes and perceptions that are just present elsewhere. This is no freak response </li></ul><ul><li>The environmental and social ethics around transport and urban design have been fudged and hidden within a professional process </li></ul><ul><li>There is no ‘buy-in’ to the transport and environmental professional’s analysis of our transport problem </li></ul><ul><li>The concept of transport demand management is alien, threatening and viewed as a political con </li></ul>
  26. 26. The need for a new vision <ul><li>The Milton Keynes case brings into focus some key and disturbing issues </li></ul><ul><li>How do we get understanding and buy-in to transport solutions from a deeply cynical public? </li></ul><ul><li>Have people lost hope of a fairer future for transport? </li></ul><ul><li>The big city institutional response of infrastructure build is less appropriate for suburbia – where innovative transport solutions require institutional reforms </li></ul><ul><li>An equitable and sustainable transport vision is needed that can win acceptance and positive support </li></ul>
  27. 27. No neat conclusions!! <ul><li>We know design inevitably incorporates value judgements </li></ul><ul><li>Transport and urban design can incorporate hidden ethical decisions </li></ul><ul><li>New technologies and different institutional structures can play a role in resolving the ethical clashes </li></ul><ul><li>But the problem needs to be accepted – which for transport is still not the case </li></ul><ul><li>Transport planning seen as something imposed by remote professionals commanding little trust </li></ul>