Triple Access Planning

Scenarios and uncertain futures for accessibility in urban and regional planning – The practitioners’ reflections

By Jonas Bylund, Marcus Adolphson, Tony Svensson, and Jacob Witzell, KTH Royal Institute of Technology

While the TAP project departure assumption point that integrated accessibility regarding land use, digitalisation, and mobility is a complex issue for planning practitioners, the Swedish planning practitioners in Norrköping seemed to relish the opportunity to explore and reflect upon accessibility and uncertainty in different scenarios for future development. 

During 2022–2023 a series of workshops was held with urban and regional planners in the City of Norrköping (and the Östragötaland Region) on how to utilize scenarios among cross-sectoral planners (i.e. transport and strategic comprehensive oriented planning officers) for the municipal planning process to integrate accessibility (in the full sense). The series of workshops were the operative side of what we may now perhaps call the shadow planning policy lab in Norrköping. Similar to a living lab but still slightly more ‘sandboxed’: live planning issues and concerns were used and put through the scenario development ‘machine’. Yet the formal decision-making apparatus was kept outside the exercise. A key aspect of testing the approach in a policy-lab setting was the possibility to think beyond established norms and ‘realities’ in the everyday planning context, and hence to scope what may be required for Triple Access Planning (TAP) to find traction. 

The plan for the exercise, co-designed from the outset with the Norrköping urban and regional planners, was to first identify TAP variables and sources of uncertainty. Then to explore these variables by developing four scenarios along a cross of degrees of resource availability on the Y-axis and degrees of transport efficiency on the X-axis. Following this a stress-testing and assessment of Norrköping transport and comprehensive plans and policy by using the scenarios. A normative phase to develop adaptive strategies and measures drawing on the previous work and then finally inquiries into how these strategies and measures can be implemented. (See also the earlier blog post commenting halfway through the series.)

As we now finished the sixth and final workshop and have had many thought-provoking exchanges exploring scenario paths into various futures, we reflected a bit together with the participating planning practitioners in the City of Norrköping on how the approach was experienced. 

Planners’ reflections in the shadow planning policy lab

The following three is a selection of experiences made and reflected upon by the planners in the workshop series.

On the scenario development

Throughout the workshops we created four scenarios along the X- and Y-axis cross described above which resulted in, on the one extreme, one scenario trajectory experienced as closer to current business-as-usual and a minimum intervention. On the other extreme, a scenario trajectory in which the planners found much resonance with visions set forward in current comprehensive planning and transport strategy.

Comments along the way were that the stress-test approach starting with one variable made it easier to get into the systemic thinking in the scenarios and checking correspondence and conflicts between variables. It made it easier to see how they all hang together vis-a-vis current planning proposals and strategies as well as politics and civil society points of view. That this is valuable to comprehensive planning in the future. Otherwise, the planners find it time-consuming to ‘get into’ the scenarios and for the approach, scenario methods, to be a useful tool in the everyday planning practice one would need a couple of more workshops to become ‘fluent’ – not least since the planners also would have to, if they were to use the approach in the planning practice, be able to popularize scenarios on the spot for politicians and the layperson public. 

On thinking about uncertainty

In one of the coffee-breaks during a workshop dealing with scenario variables’ stress-testing, the planners shared a sentiment that the big uncertainty for any proposed strategy to be implemented (or made into policy) is usually local politics – regardless of what scenario might be desired. There are turns, focus on particulars, lack of systemic insight, populism and negotiations which influences the carrying-through of any policy. 

The barrier or challenge seems, to a larger degree, to be one we might call ‘institutional uncertainty’ for now. That is, the common issue when considering how to implement policy is that shifting (democratically and legitimate) political values and policy directions may thwart action and impact. 

However, beyond that uncertainty there are also issues around what indicators and measures to use to build robust evidence and input into explorative scenarios and plan development. There is of course more to the issue of institutional uncertainty, but its connection to public administrative capacity for accessibility planning and urban and regional sustainable transformations seems clear. In this, institutional capacities seem to be a constant issue. 

On getting back to ‘reality’

So what did we, planners and researchers, learn in the shadow planning policy lab? We learnt that the use of scenarios – even in a ‘sandboxed’ policy lab – is a matter of timing. As one planner said in one of the latter workshops: ‘-If the transport strategy development was initiated now, we would have used scenario methods for sure!’

However, planners reflect upon that developing strategies around for instance private car use, while it is important to share and show consequences of different uses it is in the translation from strategy to measure conflicts usually turn up. That is, it is not enough to simply disseminate information. 

Related to this, and not surprisingly, by reflecting on the scenarios and how urban and transport planning practice is done today, we reflect on the need to align and shape joint priorities across sectoral boundaries. On the one hand, to shape a common capacity to analyze and value knowledge, data, etc. But also to be able to create longer-term perspectives to be able to assess various measures made – since the scenarios show a discrepancy between what the municipal strategic goals are and what we actually create budget lines for. 

A way forward?

Overall, accessibility – and uncertainty – are not strangers to local government urban and regional as well as transport planners. At least not in the City of Norrköping and Östragötaland Region. They understand and play around with the issues, they are quite analytical and reflexive. However, the planners, looking at capacity and resources, do not have much time on their hands. So, how can this policy lab be motivated? 

For one thing, the scenario approach can now be seen as an option in developing land-use and transport plans. It seems useful for at least a part of shifting mindsets, if one heeds Meadows’ idea that the most effective approach to achieve systemic transformations is changing the outlook and world-view rather than merely or putting all trust in tinkering with economy and engineering.