Triple Access Planning

Complex Projects – The Value of an Outsider’s Perspective

Introduction by Stephen Cragg

An outsider’s perspective on complex projects

Developing and then looking to deliver a plan to shape the future of urban mobility is a complex business. Imagine adding to that the need to consider how the transport system, land use system and telecommunications systems interact to affect how we go about our daily lives, coupled with a need to come to terms with uncertainty over how that ‘triple access system’ could or should change. I’m part of the pan-European project ‘Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures’ which is looking at getting to grips with this. It’s complex! And when you are inside such a project it can become difficult to see the wood for the trees sometimes. In this blog, Glenn Lyons and I come together to highlight how an outsider’s perspective can be helpful.

The complex case of Triple Access Planning

Expectations of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) are now considerable in the face of the climate emergency and a society in a pronounced state of flux. The conceptual case for taking a ‘Triple Access Planning’ (TAP) approach to developing and delivering SUMPs is appealing. TAP encourages a recognition that sustainable urban mobility is a product not only of how we travel but of the spatial layout of origins and destinations and – increasingly, it can be argued – a product of how digital accessibility is affecting whether we need to travel at all to meet some of our needs to access people, goods, employment, services and opportunities. TAP also seeks to explore and accommodate rather than conceal uncertainty.

We cannot expect that it will be easy to develop and deliver a SUMP that embodies TAP. It is a complex, multi-faceted proposition for intervention which is very likely to involve many different individual measures and projects being developed in semi-isolation then brought together to ‘deliver the plan’. This is not, in itself, an unusual problem. Any major complex intervention (e.g. building a new bridge) involves many sub-elements which in turn can create more sub-sub-elements, etc.

Where it gets more challenging is when the projects are not focused on a single outcome, are not within the remit of one organisation, impact on thousands or even millions of people, are being developed at different times, in an ever-shifting policy environment and against a backdrop of ever-increasing uncertainty but also the urgency of the climate emergency.

We need to ‘hit the ground running’ in transforming how we deliver sustainable travel. To do that we should not only look at what successes have happened but also at what has failed or at least could have been done better.

The complex case of the Strategic Transport Projects Review

Glenn and I are both heavily involved in the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project. We approach it from different perspectives but both from inside the project. Meanwhile, away from this project, I have also been involved in another complex and much bigger project: the second Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2). In 2020, the Scottish Government published its second National Transport Strategy. This set out a vision with accompanying priorities and outcomes for Scotland’s transport system. To achieve this vision the strategy has an associated delivery plan with a large number of actions. One of these actions was a major study to determine what transport infrastructure is needed over the next 20 years. The final report of this STPR2 study was published in December 2022.

It is very difficult to do an introspective review of your own work, so I was delighted when Glenn did a review of the final report from an outsiders’ perspective.

Over to Glenn.

The outsider’s perspective by Glenn Lyons

Providing an outsider’s perspective as a form of CPD

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for voluntarily making the time to review significant new reports that come out – particularly those from national bodies that relate to transport planning, policy and appraisal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a regular habit because time simply doesn’t allow for that. What I’ve realised is that this can be a rather productive form of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) – I decide to read a report; it then seems sensible to make some notes while I do so; and it then seems worthwhile to go a little further and turn those notes into a short article that captures what struck me in reviewing the report. Such a discipline means I pay closer attention when reading a report. It also means I then have to think about how to articulate my review commentary in a constructive and accessible way. If I manage all that then my review (usually written as a LinkedIn blog) can be helpful to others wanting an insight into the report in question.

So – I decided to review STPR2 and wrote a LinkedIn article about it.

Issues that can come to light when you’re on the outside looking in

I don’t propose here to try and explain STPR2 and go into detail on it. What I want to do is highlight the sort of things when looking in from the outside it might be helpful for those on the inside to be aware of.

What is it? When you have been on the inside of a project for a long time you start to take for granted that you (hopefully) ‘get it’ and know (fairly well) where it fits in within the bigger picture. But the bigger picture can be complicated with other documents that inter-relate in ways you don’t understand from the outside looking in. You can feel bamboozled by acronyms and assumed prior knowledge you don’t have. In order to begin offering constructively critical commentary on something you need to have a reasonable understanding in the first place of what it’s all about and what was involved.

What’s excluded? Often a report presents the polished version of what made it past the cutting room floor into the final edit. One is presented with what was in scope and judged as important. In my view, however, what didn’t make the cut and why can make for important further insight, especially when trying to understand the overall initiative. Similarly it is not always helpful to be presented with examples of best/good practice unless accompanied by examples of worst/poor practice.

What’s hidden? Earlier in my career I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of an executive summary to a document or even a summary report to accompany the full report. The realisation that busy senior people might never ever open the full report is sobering. What then matters is that the summary does indeed encapsulate the most important aspects of the full report. This is a matter of judgement. If you dig deeper than the summary you may find that there is material you, as the reader, consider especially important, that never got a mention in the summary.

How come? Another product of an ‘inside job’ when it comes to writing a report is that certain matters can be taken for granted and not mentioned or explained. There may be lists and tables indicating a summary of relative importance or ratings but without the ability for the reader to make sense of the ‘why?’ behind them. Without the ‘why?’ being addressed in their mind, the reader learns less and goes away with what may be inadequate understanding or even confusion. And outsider can readily ask the ‘why?’ questions if invited to do so and help test whether the authors are meeting the needs of the readers.

What else? Within a project there can be a diversity of perspectives and this is how it should ideally be, especially when dealing with wicked problems. Yet over time those perspectives may become somewhat conditioned to the nature of the project, the process involved and the rounds of dialogue that have taken place. An outsider has the mixed blessing of on the one hand having less understanding about the inner workings of the project and on the other hand having….well…less understanding about the inner workings of the project.A fresh perspective can lead to new questions being prompted: so what?; so why?; so how? so what next? so what if? There comes a point where the questions must end and the report must be finished, but it can be well worth giving an outsider’s questions an airing.

Perhaps it seems obvious to observe such things as those above but sometimes when you’ve been inside for long enough it gets lost, especially in a complex project. Of course, being a reviewer of someone else’s work and offering commentary on such questions above then comes around to the question of ‘do you practice what you preach?’ when I look to what Stephen and I are up to with our partners on the inside of the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project. We do engage with others and have sought to get outsiders’ perspectives. In fact we’ve even developed a serious game to help us to do so. Nevertheless, we can and should look to do more. So – if you feel at any point minded to offer us an outsider’s view on the project, we’d love to have your questions to be able to reflect upon how we might further up our game.

Triple Access Planning

Rethinking Appraisal and Prioritisation of Transport Infrastructure Investment

When I started my career in transport one of the areas I had to learn about first was basic economics.

When I started working for the government, I then started to learn about politics.

I saw lots of politicians studied PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics, so I decided I should learn a bit about Philosophy.

I did a short online course and discovered that philosophy was simply thinking about how we think about something. The start of the title of tonight’s event could easily have been Transport Philosophy and Prioritisation of Transport Infrastructure Investment.

The course also taught me that philosophy is something that you have to actively do. You need to postulate, debate, discuss and argue and that’s what I’m here to do tonight and so to be clear, what I’m going to say are generally my personal musings and thoughts on this topic and may not reflect the views of Transport Scotland or the Scottish Government. 

Philosophically, it occurred to me that the transport sector is founded on a paradox.

I think that travel is a good thing. It has broadened my mind. I have seen many wondrous sights on 5 different continents. I enjoy going new places and getting out and about.

But I have spent a most of my career working on the assumption that travel is a bad thing. It is a disutility. Indeed, many of our business cases are founded on travel time savings.

And it gets even more complex for us. Fundamentally, as an industry we have been very good at getting people to travel further and that’s been accepted as good. Compared to 50 years ago we now travel on average over 50% further a day – 19 miles rather than 12 without taking any more time to do that.

We’ve built more homes, enabled services to consolidate and become more efficient.

However, the faster we travel, the more energy we use and even worse it’s a squared relationship. Kinetic energy = ½ mass x velocity squared.

It’s very bad when we get that energy from fossil fuels, but even if we go all electric, that’s a lot of energy to generate.

So, looking to the future, is our job to help people to travel more or travel less? I’ve asked this question of a few transport planners and it tends to leave them with a very quizzical look on their face.

As an aside, I don’t believe other sectors suffer this paradox. The Health sector has a clear objective to make people healthier. The education sector to make people better educated. Employment sector to get people employed, etc. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that rocket science is part of the transport sector.

But back to philosophy, when faced with a paradox like this it’s a great opportunity to think about how we think about transport. I think the solution lies in being more holistic. Travel is generally a disutility but I’m not a masochist; I don’t travel for the sake of travelling. I travel because I get a greater utility from whatever it is that the travel is giving me access to. I’ve travelled over 450 miles to be here today – that’s a lot of disutility, but I did it on the expectation of the utility that I’ll get from listening to my fellow panellists and hopefully from the feedback I get from you, the audience.

However, we don’t just get access from travelling. Whilst I’ve travelled a long way to be here tonight, some of you might be lucky enough to work close by and were able to walk or cycle here and of course this event is taking place on line.

Together these three ways of access were, to my mind, beautifully wrapped up in this diagram in Glenn Lyons and Cody Davidson’s 2016 paper.

We achieve access to services and goods through either physical motorised mobility, spatial proximity enabling active travel or digital connectivity.

You might say this is not a particularly new concept and I would concur. We’ve been talking about the need for better integration of spatial and transport planning for over 50 years. Just yesterday the ICE had a webinar that was linked to COP26 titled Planning for Transport and Connectivity. The image that accompanied it was of high density neighbourhoods with vertical green space, horizontal blue space and the mobility was all walking and cycling – not a motor vehicle in sight and the information about the event was the now familiar concept of the 10, 15, or 20 minute neighbourhood.

I’d now like to bring in the second part of the event’s title – prioritisation of transport infrastructure investment.

Probably since the Romans started building roads, more transport infrastructure has generally been a good thing. Build it and they will come. It’s actually been quite hard to fail in transport because we’ve not really had any competition.

But I put it to you that world is now history. Not only does transport have serious competition for delivering access, the need to rapidly transition to a net-zero sustainable world means we have to travel less.

I see spatial planners all over the world now talking about the 10, 15 or 20 minute neighbourhoods. I recently moved home and when looking at flats to rent, superfast broadband was a non-negotiable need. I would even go so far as to say that for my son’s generation they would probably put digital access alongside food, water, clothing and shelter as a basic physiological need.

In summary, the transport sector now has some serious competition and we ignore it at our peril IF we continue to think about transport in the same way that we’ve done for so long now.

So what can we do about this? Fortunately there’s a system I know of for dealing with problems, it’s called Appraisal.

Appraisal starts with Problems and or Opportunities. 

I think we have a problem that if we continue to think about transport appraisal in isolation then we are at risk of investing in both the wrong transport infrastructure and putting it in the wrong place.

Have I made a convincing case for that? I obviously think I have but if you think I’m wrong, I am keen to hear why.

After defining the problem, we need an objective or outcome that captures where we want to get to.

For me, that’s pretty simple. We need to move to doing access appraisal where we think about the full Triple Access Planning concept for solving transport problems.

Again, that step needs buy-in. Do you think I’ve articulated the right outcome to aim for?

Next step is to come up with the options that will achieve the outcome sought.

I’ve a few ideas and if you are in agreement with my articulation of the problem and the outcome, I would be keen to hear any further options you have?

1. I’m already doing this option. I was lucky to be invited to be a non-academic partner to a Europe-wide consortium of universities from the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and Slovenia, who started earlier this year a 3 year project titled: Using Triple Access Planning to Enhance Urban Accessibility and Connectivity in the Face of Deep Uncertainty. The website for the research is on the slide and the Project Coordinator is my good friend Professor Glenn Lyons .

2. What about working toward a unified appraisal system for transport, land-use and digital. I know that the Welsh government’s transport appraisal guidance welTAG already advises practitioners to consider non-transport solutions and the very recent update to the Scottish Guidance that I’m responsible for has included this.

Is that enough? I don’t know. This is one of my medium-term plans to look at. In Scotland, in addition to our transport appraisal guidance, we already have development planning and management transport appraisal guidance – I’m also responsible for this, so it’s high on my list for review / update / possibly consolidation with the transport appraisal guidance.

By fortunate coincidence, the economists in our digital directorate doing business cases there used to work alongside me in Transport Scotland.  They recognise that Transport Appraisal Guidance is pretty much gold standard and they’ve started writing Digital Appraisal Guidance with an eye on how we do things and are thinking about the transport impacts.

3. This one is still a nascent idea, but have started the conversation with colleagues in digital about whether we need research on how people and businesses make their location choices based on not only on physical but also digital connectivity. I would be reluctant to now live anywhere that doesn’t have a minimum of 50Mb broadband.

4. And finally, as I will be coming up on my 10 minutes now, what’s in a name?

Language is important and has a framing effect on how we think about issues. An excellent recent example of this is to talk about road traffic collisions rather than road traffic accidents.

I’m a transport planner. When faced with a transport problem, my head reaches straight for the bag of transport solutions. 

But would being a Chartered Access Planning Professional change the way I think? Should I be petitioning my friend, colleague and soon to be president of the Chartered Institute for Highways and Transport, Neil Johnstone, to change its name to the Chartered Institute of Access, although I’m not sure what connection requests I’ll start to get through LinkedIn if I say I’m a member of the CIA.


Stephen Cragg is Head of Appraisal and Model Development at Transport Scotland and representing Transport Scotland in the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project.