Henrik Nolmark, Director, Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF)
We know pretty well what needs to be done, right? Reduce private car driving, promote and improve public transport, infrastructure for walking and cycling, more environment-friendly deliveries, safer and more accessible streets, and so on. We have beautiful design ideas and technologies just waiting to be implemented across the world. But do we really know how to make that happen? Do we really understand why urban transport systems are shaped the way they are, and how to navigate and facilitate the transition?
In their book Non-motorized transport integration into urban transport planning in Africa, researchers Winnie Mitullah, Marianne Vanderschuren and Melecki Khayesi state that “transport and urban planning remains situated in a logic of automobile-dependant transport planning and global city development”. This is not unique for African cities, many of us share that experience. Car-centric urban development did not just happen coincidentally, it was a systemic development and needs to be understood from political, commercial and cultural aspects, besides the technology and design.
Alan Altshuler, former Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, comments in his introduction to the book Transforming Urban Transport that we may remain puzzled about why governments are often resistant to ideas broadly supported by professionals (e.g. congestion charging), while also wondering why some new concepts and solutions have become widely adopted (e.g. BRT).
The Pedalista project team in Stockholm found that – contrary to the view among many transport planners – cultural norms and social conditions were as important as cycling infrastructure in order to understand why certain groups of women did not use the bicycle for moving around in the city, even when bicycles were available and there were many kilometers of bicycle lanes in their neighbourhoods.
These are just a few references to the importance of understanding the context and how to navigate in that landscape of politics, money, power, cultures, etc. If we don’t understand the driving forces, the players and the game, we risk getting stuck in advocating for what should be done instead of getting it done. That is why I wish to see a new generation of sustainable transportation champions much better equipped than my generation to tackle the challenges. We need a whole new generation of transportation champions capable of putting urban transport into its context – politics and governance, people and businesses, urban landscapes as well as global environment and climate. Expertise in your own field is fundamental, of course, but for your ideas, knowledge and skills to become instrumental you also need a general understanding of other fields of expertise.
So how can this happen? First, we need new approaches to education for urban transport. We need multidisciplinary master level programs on urban mobility and transportation, but also to open up traditional engineering and planning curricula for at least a few modules on politics, user needs, urban systems, etc. Further, where universities have their limitations, we need to develop trainings for professionals and decision-makers that put transport into context.
Secondly, we need to develop professional cultures viewing urban transportation as a conglomerate of diverse expert areas across engineering, social science, humanities and natural science, with institutions that seek and welcome staff from a variety of backgrounds. Knowledge on environment, energy and climate change is absolutely essential, however in my view these fields of expertise have been dominating the sustainable transport discourse for many years while many other types of expertise have been relatively obscure.
Thirdly, in many cities urban transportation is primarily organised rather narrowly as a technical service, managed by departments that were originally created to build and maintain roads and streets. Engineering capacity is the default value, with little space for broader discussions beyond transport efficiency. How about shifting the approach, and instead see transportation as one of several responsibilities in a department for access and mobility? Wouldn’t that facilitate putting transport in a context of broader societal objectives?
Finally, we need to encourage young leaders and experts to listen and learn beyond their comfort zones. Hanging with your peers, following your well-known information and learning channels is absolutely fine, but to deepen our understanding of context and how to drive transition we also have to meet people with other perspectives. We need to challenge conventional wisdom and contest à-la-mode measures and solutions.
I call for donors and others with resources to develop and support programs which nurture up and coming sustainable transport champions, in academia, practice, policy and politics. There are plenty of highly skilled, brilliant and brave, engaged and committed young people who we can assist by opening doors, making room for, listening to, and offering learning structures and career paths.
The SLOCAT Partnership and the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF) have launched in May 2019 the Young Leaders in Sustainable Transport programme.
The programme builds bridges between the transport community and young people and explores new perspectives by creating an interface between knowledge and policy. It will also raise the capacity of young people and provide them new skills in evidence-based policy analysis for sustainable transport.
Young people are recognised as the torchbearers of sustainable development and the vanguards in the struggle against climate change. By working directly with young leaders, the transport community will empower the generation who can help foster far-reaching and unprecedented change and build long-lasting bridges with other constituencies.
SLOCAT is proud to work with VREF in supporting the Young Leaders in Sustainable Transport in their work around this topic.