Triple Access Planning

Uncertainty and the EU SUMP Guidelines – more to consider?

It’s getting on for three years since the EU SUMP Guidelines (Rupprecht Consult, 2019, produced for the European Commission) were published and if there’s one thing that’s become more obvious in that time than it was back then, it’s that we live in an uncertain world.  There are changes, such as in personal preferences about where to live and how to travel, or fuel prices, or the use of self-driving vehicles, that we can foresee, but we are uncertain about the speed and scale of change.  Then there are changes that we simply cannot anticipate – arguably, the pandemic was one of these. The use of digital connectivity as a substitute for physical mobility, and the importance or otherwise of access based on short distances (the 15 Minute City, for example), are concepts that are with us, but how much they will reduce longer distance physical mobility in future remains uncertain as well.  So, in short, there’s a pressing need to try to better account for these uncertainties in SUM planning – perhaps especially so in those SUMPs, such as those financed by the EU in Accession States, that involve, at considerable cost, the construction by consultants of a traditional four-stage transport model using quite linear predictions of the future that, after the SUMP has been produced, nobody in the municipality for which it is built is very certain how to use.

In the Urban Europe project Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures we are advocating an approach to SUM planning that takes uncertainty more into account – but how?  Principally, we suggest, by the use of explorative scenarios – this means scenarios, or depictions of the future, that begin on the basis of past and present trends but that lead to credible, plausible futures.  Crucially, these are scenarios that do not package transport measures within a SUMP – they instead  try to take into account (changes in) a range of factors that might influence our futures substantially, such as personal preferences for different forms of social contact, or trends in working patterns.  Packages of measures and the SUMP as a whole can then be “stress-tested” against these scenarios to see how well they perform.  Ratcliffe (2002, p.4) is cited in Mietzner and Reger (2005:224) as listing the “main characteristics of scenarios [as]:

  • present alternative images instead of extrapolating trends from the present
  • embrace qualitative perspectives as well as quantitative data
  • allow for sharp discontinuities to be evaluated
  • require decision makers to question their basic assumptions
  • create a learning organisation possessing a common vocabulary and an effective
  • basis for communicating complex – sometimes paradoxical – conditions/ options.”   

So how is uncertainty dealt with in the EU SUMP Guidelines?  To answer this question, the TAP for Uncertain Futures project conducted a structured review of the 2019 Guidelines and the 2021 Topic Guide on Planning for More Resilient and Robust Urban Mobility.  Leaving aside the issue that digital accessibility is really not considered, and nor is the uncertainty of the future interaction between digital, short distance and long distance mobility as means to access what we need, the main issue is that scenario planning, as defined in Sections 4.1 and 4.2 of the Guidelines, is not based on explorative scenarios as described above, but largely on scenarios defined as different packages of SUMP measures.  The 2021 Topic Guide defines scenarios in the same way but slightly confusingly also mentions explorative scenarios.  However, it says little about the detail of explorative scenario development and planning, and advocates their use primarily as a way to address major shocks such as pandemics rather than a routine part of SUM planning for an uncertain world. 

So while the 2021 publication has in comparison to its 2019 “big brother” begun to recognise uncertainty as something that should be planned for, in brief, there is little advice on how to do so.  It is for this reason that the TAP for Uncertain Futures project, through its research and practical work with five municipalities across Europe as they further develop their SUMPs, plans to produce new practical guidance on how to develop scenarios and better plan for uncertainty in SUMPs in future.

Tom Rye is a Professor of Transport Policy at Molde University, Norway, and a senior researcher UIRS the Urban Planning Institute of Slovenia, and (with UIRS) project partner in Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures.