All Change? DfT Responds to Commission on Travel Demand Report

At the start of this month the Permanent Secretary, Bernadette Kelly issued a letter responding to the Commission on Travel Demand’s All Change report which can be downloaded here. This felt like a major step as the Commission has no formal footing and so the Department in turn has no requirement to respond. It is clear from their response that the reason they did so was because they welcome the open engagement and collaborative working methods of the Commission. I think the Commission has had so much traction because there are some significant trend changes which we still do not know how to explain or which sit outside our traditional ways of approaching understanding travel demand. So, I’m really positive about the on-going dialogue which is continuing into our next inquiry into shared mobility.

What did the response actually say though? What has changed and what is being looked at?

First, there are various pieces of work which have been published since All Change. First, Road Traffic Forecasts 2018, which reinforced the importance of understanding why trip rates are declining. A scenario where this trend continues will likely produce a different set of investment needs. More recently a piece of econometric work on car travel which tried to consider differences across age, gender, region, employment, family and household structure. This sort of analysis is really important as it can unpick the rate of change of likelihood to take up a license, own a car and drive it. The report finds that income is becoming less important as an explanatory over time and that the cohort effects are important. However, as it acknowledges – this does not explain why these trends are happening and that is where we really need to look outside our existing tools and mindsets.

Work is underway to unpick some of the social trends, in particular on ageing. It is worth noting that the central ONS forecast of population growth shows around 85% of the growth in UK population as being in the over 65s. It is crucial therefore to know more about how mobility needs and patterns change with aging and to what extent the motivations which are assumed about the purpose and value of different attributes might also change.

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A second key issue which I think sits unresolved, is the challenge of wanting to promote lower demand futures at a local level. Without clarity about why trip rates are declining and an understanding of under which circumstances this might be economically beneficial, simply presenting a lower demand future as your likely local scenario sets your scheme at a disadvantage relative to an area which does not make that assumption. So, whilst the Department is keen to emphasise the flexibility of Webtag, the realities on the ground would seem to stifle more than incremental change.

The Department is developing its monitoring and evaluation database and is continuing work to develop the accessibility of the National Transport Model without committing to open source access. Coupled with the consultation on Appraisal and Modelling Strategy the Department continues, to my mind, to be committed to an open engagement process around its evidence base and this has to be welcome.

Work also appears to be underway to consider alternative approaches to assessing the potential for different investments to make sense in a range of demand futures. My colleague at Leeds, Katy Roelich is working with Transport for Greater Manchester on adaptive decision-making approaches and the Department’s response welcomes the sharing of findings about alternative approaches. Whilst making changes to how advice is developed is not a trivial matter, the door is open.

The Committee on Climate Change has welcomed the All Change report, with it featuring significantly in the 2018 Progress Report to Parliament and Lord Deben’s letter to the Secretary of State for Transport. The Department’s response stated that it “recognise[s] the importance of understanding the implications of different demand forecasts on the reductions needed to meet our carbon targets and will work with the CCC to consider how best to do this” so we can hopefully look forward to a new set of analysis on this in the 2019 Progress Report.

A final reflection on the Department’s response is that, perhaps understandably, we are still looking to explain trends in travel patterns largely through a transport lens. This has been true of other organisations and industry groupings I have presented to over the past year. Demand shifts remain something that are happening and that should be understood, but largely through the variables we have always used. Whilst there is merit in this approach it is limited. There is still room and need to open up our insight. Shifting demand is, as a result, not yet a central policy proposition. It might need to be, to meet climate change commitments and it might ‘ought to be’ if lower travel lifestyles are becoming more feasible and attractive. Much work remains to be done to test those propositions and to rethink how we understand travel demand. The Commission will continue to play its part in contributing to this debate and the Department’s knowledge base over the next five years as part of the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (see our new inquiry launch on shared mobility). It has only been able to do so through acting as a meeting house for ideas and evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. We hope that you will also come with us on that journey and bring in others along the way.

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