Triple Access Planning

TAPping into a changing world

The term ‘Triple Access Planning’ (TAP) seems to be gaining traction. Triple access is about recognising, understanding and shaping the world in which we live – a world in which there are three means to access people, goods, jobs, services and opportunities: physical mobility (transport system), spatial proximity (land use system) and digital connectivity (telecommunications system). The Triple Access System requires us to lift our heads up from a rather myopic focus on transport solutions to transport problems in transport planning. This is something the pan-European project ‘Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures’ aims to help with. It comes at a time when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and uncertainty about the future.

The project began in May 2021 and has academic, public authority and consultancy partners in Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. In December 2021 the UK academic and non-academic partners came together to reflect upon the project. This short article summarises some of the points that came to light in their conversation:

Time to think – As a policymaker and as a planner, systems thinking is about being able to stand back and make sense of the system that one is hoping to shape and improve. It can be all too easy to see the time to think in a busy world squeezed out. Facing the immediacy and urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate emergency respectively suggests even less time to think, with a need to see action. Yet ironically, thinking is needed more than ever. We need to reflect upon, challenge and develop our mental models of the system of mobility in the wider context of examining the Triple Access System. The TAP for Uncertain Futures project is allowing us to do this. It is providing time to think. After all – failing to think and then plan, is planning to fail…

Drawing upon experience – A common challenge when we are asked to contemplate future development is that we haven’t experienced it so how can we offer a meaningful view? The COVID-19 pandemic has given us all some experience in the present of what could be a more mainstream future – we have seen how it is possible to make very different use of the Triple Access System (affecting where, when and how we do things – notably with higher collective reliance on digital connectivity for work, shopping and leisure), and found it in some respects rather appealing (while in respects less so in terms, for example, of social isolation). The exposure from this shared experience creates an important platform for thinking differently about the future and how we plan for it. The project has arrived at an opportune time.

Giving credence to TAP – As a three-year project dedicated to Triple Access Planning, TAP for Uncertain Futures helps to bring the concept to life and to give it legitimacy and visibility. It forms part of a ‘learning by talking about it and doing it’ culture. Several organisations inside and outside of the project consortium are now referring to Triple Access Planning and using it to frame their thinking and planning (from small acorns…..). The project and its website offer a boost for innovators and early adopters to bring Triple Access Planning to the attention of their colleagues and stakeholders. The project also provides an important forum for learning how to better articulate what is a more challenging representation of the world than perhaps we have seen previously in transport planning – it’s not as simple as ‘if you push a button here, something happens over there’.

Beyond silos and boundaries – It’s not easy doing joined up thinking. The hope of better integration between land use and transport goes back to the 1960s. Accessibility planning was something that brought ‘access’ to the fore in the 2000s but joined up thinking and action hasn’t proved to be easy, or easy to sustain. In a resource-constrained planning environment “it’s not my department, it’s not my problem” can soon trip off the tongue. Yet siloed thinking and action in a Triple Access System risk becoming more vulnerable to unanticipated consequences and missed opportunities if we do not broaden our field of view and collective action.

Climate change makes it our problem – Yet perhaps COVID-19 and the climate emergency make the need for joined up thinking and action greater than it’s ever been – we all have a problem and need to be more open-minded and co-operative if we are to make the progress that is needed. The challenge – one that the project will need to grapple with – is how to make a more complex ‘system of systems’ proposition accessible and persuasive to those in authority in different functional parts of the public sector. The proposition has to ring out ‘this can help you to overcome the problems you face and the opportunities that you may have for the taking’.

A TAP castle on sand – The TAP for Uncertain Futures project is embarking on a review of existing Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) and equivalent documents across 40-50 urban areas in several European countries. This will help to understand the extent to which existing guidance on urban mobility planning is being put into practice. What will it discover? The hope would be that strong planning is found in many locations, suggesting a firm bedrock upon which to build Triple Access Planning. Yet suppose the aspired for Triple Access Planning ‘castle’ is being built upon sand? What if existing urban mobility planning is still struggling in some respects with more fundamental issues of understanding, resources and agency when it comes to supporting policymaking to shape the future? This remains to be seen and will be an important contribution from the project.

Rethinking analytical robustness – The biggest risk facing urban planning authorities may be being risk averse. In the face of the discomfort of a changing and uncertain world it may be tempting to seek solace in the familiar. The orthodox transport planning approach may prevail, involving tried and tested measures and perhaps strongly guided by being forecast-led instead of vision-led. This may perpetuate a reliance on a particular understanding of analytical robustness where being precisely wrong can be favoured over being approximately right. Consider the prospect of investing to transform digital connectivity to reshape the Triple Access System, or closing a city centre to traffic to provide priority for active travel and proximate encounters. Such bold changes may seem hard to contemplate and to justify, even if triple access thinking may instinctively suggest they are meritorious. COVID-19 gave us many glimpses of how swift and rather transformative actions – light on analytical underpinnings – can be taken to change the system, changes to which humans respond and adapt. Whether or not adaptation is universally well-received is another matter and lessons are being learned in this regard.

A public coming on side – We live in a world that has historically been driven by pursuit of economic prosperity and within which cost and convenience have been important determinants of behaviour. It has been a challenging environment within which to suggest ambitions for less travel and less motorised travel, and to realise such ambitions. Yet now the imperative of addressing climate change is with all urban authorities, with many having declared a climate emergency. The imperative has also seemingly been growing in the minds of the electorate. In Britain the latest November Ipsos MORI Issues Index indicates concern about the environment and climate change are at the highest level since this tracker survey began in the 1980s. Concern for the environment and climate change is considerably higher than for the economy. People will doubtless still weigh cost and convenience heavily in the choices they make but they may be more tolerant of urban mobility planning interventions that are designed to reshape the Triple Access System and the choices within it.

Window of opportunity – None of this is easy as is well-recognised by the project partners themselves. However, the difficult position the world finds itself in will not be eased by strategic ignorance and a temptation to muddle along doing what was always done. Substantial change needs to happen. The pain of change can perhaps be eased by redistributing how we fulfil our access needs and desires within the Triple Access System. The project finds itself in the midst of an unprecedented opportunity. COVID-19 has illuminated the resilience offered by the Triple Access System and the adaptability of humans within the system, when system conditions change. The increasing emphasis on goals for the future in terms of emissions reduction and changes to technology and behaviour suggests a growing move from being forecast-led to vision-led in planning. The climate emergency brings us together in what can be a united effort to achieve substantial but also inclusive change. Triple Access Planning may in these circumstances help provide the key to unlocking new opportunities for society to respond positively and effectively to the circumstances it faces. Perhaps then, TAP for Uncertain Futures is in the right place at the right time.


Glenn Lyons is the Mott MacDonald professor of future mobility at UWE Bristol, and the coordinator for the project Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures.

Triple Access Planning

Discovering the ‘sweet spot’ of Triple Access Planning

Travel is a derived demand. Ah, yes, we often remind ourselves of this – and we seem to manage to derive an awful lot of it by how we plan (take a look at the monstrous Thanksgiving jam in LA of 12+ lanes of bumper-to-bumper vehicles). But, as any good transport planner knows, “it’s about access, stupid”. My aim here is to challenge you to think hard about access and its role in transport planning.

Travel is derived from how we design for access and how people wish to, and are able to, fulfil their access needs. However, here’s the rub: “[a] seemingly simple idea, that goods and services and other activities should be easy to reach, is somehow difficult to implement in practice” (so says Professor Susan Handy from California in her excellent 2020 article ‘Is accessibility an idea whose time has finally come?’). Derek Halden, one of the pioneers of accessibility planning in the UK, I’m sure feels her pain. Susan worries about an intense focus upon accessibility measures that may be getting in the way of addressing access in practice. She advocates for access being employed as a way of thinking. I couldn’t agree more. Stephen Cragg from Transport Scotland has reminded us that we need to be philosophical about transport before we plan it. I would take an old adage and adapt it: failing to think and then plan, is planning to fail.

Thinking about access
So, let’s do some thinking about access that might in turn help to influence transport planning practice. After Professor Phil Goodwin (who said as much for changing travel behaviour), ‘changing access’ is has an important double meaning: how we are able to reach things we need or desire is changing and can be changed (‘changing’ being an adjective or a verb). With ‘changing’ in mind, motorised travel does not necessarily need in future to continue being as dominant as the derivative of society’s pursuit of access.

Look back to 1989 when the World Wide Web was invented, and from that vantage point look forwards over the 30 or so years to present day. The digital age has collided and merged with the motor age. From a 56k modem (56 kilobits per second) in the 1990s, I now have a broadband connection speed at home of up to 100 megabits per second. Speed of data movement is around 1700 times faster – and the digital activities and services of today would have been unrecognisable 30 years ago. Just imagine what digital connectivity could look like in 30 years’ time. Can you?

Access fulfilment was never just about transport. We live in the Triple Access System (TAS), a concept Cody Davidson and I set out in 2016 (see Figure 1). The transport system provides access through physical mobility, the land-use system provides access through spatial proximity, and the telecommunications system provides access through digital connectivity. Stephen Cragg put it to me: “that simple triangle that you and Cody created hits that sweet spot of being easy to understand and oh so powerful in communicating an idea that once it’s there, you can’t believe you’ve never seen it yourself”. But what do you think?

Figure 1. The Triple Access System and adaptation of access in response to the pandemic.

Then along came the pandemic. The societal response to COVID-19 has demonstrated (more powerfully than we could have imagined in 2019) how integral to each of our lives (in different ways) the TAS is. The pandemic has also revealed two key attributes of the TAS: adaptability and resilience. Social inequalities have been further exposed in terms of these attributes and that there is an important distinction between being able to and wanting to do things differently. Nevertheless, society in parts turned from a high dependence on physical (motorised) mobility for access towards much greater dependence upon digital connectivity (for work, education, shopping, socialising), coupled with a greater emphasis on spatial proximity (see Figure 1). Perhaps our highly connected world is to blame in part for the pandemic. But how would we have coped with such a pandemic in 1989 (COVID-89), in an era without the flexibility of access offered today (to some) by the TAS?

What is clear to me is that transport planning cannot ignore the TAS. We are in a period of deep uncertainty about future transport; to help address this, we need to deepen our understanding of the role played by spatial proximity and digital connectivity. “But this is looking very complicated, how are we going to measure and model all of this?” some of you may be thinking. My response is to offer a reminder that a model is a simplification of reality (and that models come in different forms) and also to stress that it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. We should see the TAS as helping us think differently about how we make sense of future mobility and how we plan for it.

Systems thinking is a form of modelling – specifically the use of causal loop diagrams (CLDs). Creation of such diagrams helps us to understand a system’s dynamics in terms of the variables involved. This can be done for each of the TAS sub-systems (see for example Figure 2). It is then possible to see how reinforcing and balancing effects can be created within and between the sub-systems. It reminds us, for example, how reinforcement of a cycle of growing dependence on physical (motorised) mobility for access has come about.

Figure 2. Systems thinking – a causal loop diagram depicting variables and dynamics in the transport system.

But it can also help us appreciate how countervailing (balancing) effects can come, or be brought, into play. Consider for instance a (re)balancing away from motorised mobility (involving dynamics across the three TAS sub-systems):

  • Normalisation of digitally accessed activities and services could arise (telecommunications system).
  • This could reduce demand for distant face-to-face activities and services, in turn reducing the demand for motorised mobility, then reducing the policy priority for access based upon motorised mobility (transport system).
  • This could make way for continued or heightened policy priority for access based upon active travel, leading to improved availability and demand for proximate face-to-face activities and services (land-use system).
  • Such dynamics between the systems would foster ‘live local, act global’ accessibility in this scenario. The scenario is not a million miles away, for some people, from what has been occurring during the pandemic.

Triple Access Planning
Just as transport planning has the present and future of the transport system in mind, Triple Access Planning (TAP) has the TAS in mind. Am I suggesting that transport planning should make way for TAP? Yes and no. We may still see ourselves as transport planners but we should think about and apply our approach to addressing the future of the transport system through the lens of the TAS. Here is my definition of TAP:
The tripartite consideration of fulfilment of society’s access needs in pursuance of social, environmental and economic outcomes, in which actions are cognisant of and seek to influence the inter-related mechanisms of physical mobility, spatial proximity and digital connectivity.

TAP is outcomes-oriented and therefore vision-led. Actions taken (policy interventions) might be confined, in the case of transport planning and policy, to influencing physical mobility. Nevertheless, these actions should at least take account of influences from, and upon, changing spatial proximity and digital connectivity. Preferably, a more joined up approach would be taken in which actions across all three sub-systems are identified in a co-ordinated way to bring about mutually reinforcing effects to realise economic, environmental and social outcomes.

In the forecast-led paradigm of predict and provide, application of TAP could get caught up in the question “how is it possible to fully understand and model the TAS to forecast what its future supply and demand will most likely be (for do-nothing and do-something cases)?” (see above). However, I have always seen the concept of TAP as instead being integral to the vision-led paradigm of decide and provide (see Figure 3).

Demand-led supply – ReactiveSupply-led demand – Proactive
Predict and provide – forecast a most likely mobility future (within sensitivity-tested bounds of uncertainty) and provide a means to accommodate projected demandDecide and provide – decide on a preferred accessibility future (and outcomes) and provide a means to move towards it in a way that accommodates the deep uncertainty ahead
Figure 3. Alternative ‘transport’ planning paradigms.

So, what might characterise a preferred accessibility future? A good illustration comes from combining three different sources of recent inspiration into an imagined whole: (i) Scotland’s National Transport Strategy Delivery Plan has an intention to “develop a coordinated package of policy interventions to reduce car kilometres by 20% by 2030 [compared to pre-pandemic]” (physical mobility); (ii) Anne Hidalgo made the 15-minute city a centrepiece of her successful 2020 re-election campaign as mayor of Paris (spatial proximity); and (iii) the Welsh Government “has stated its long-term ambition to see around 30% of Welsh workers working from home or near from home” (digital connectivity). Could such triple-access thinking be brought into practice now?

Getting set for TAP
I believe there are five key reasons why the time is ripe for TAP:

  1. The strong imperative – we face a climate emergency and a legal obligation in the UK to decarbonise which means a form of triple-access is needed that treads more lightly on the planet.
  2. The sufficiently compelling offer – digital connectivity has rapidly matured, and will continue to develop significantly, as the third-leg of the accessibility stool.
  3. The harness – a chance to better embrace access by treating it as a way of thinking in planning (coupled with simple measurement and modelling).
  4. The psyche – an awareness, rethinking and reapplication of accessibility thrust into many personal and professional lives by COVID-19.
  5. The application – it forms a natural part of the decide and provide paradigm that is diffusing into transport planning.

Building upon the use of systems thinking, TAP involves exploring plausible future TAS configurations – i.e. scenarios – according to the critical uncertainties of society’s relative/absolute change in preference for and consumption of physical mobility, spatial proximity and digital connectivity (see Figure 4). Together such scenarios reflect uncertainty over a ‘do nothing’ future because the ‘triple access policymaker’ cannot have full control over shaping the future – some system change (involving multiple other actors) will be out of their hands.

Figure 4. Alternative accessibility features.

By then having in mind a preferred accessibility future, ‘do something’ policy interventions can be designed and tested to determine their resilience in being able to help progress towards the preferred future in the face of this uncertainty.

Are you still with me or did I lose you?! It must be said that TAP is not necessarily about making (strategic) transport planning any easier but it is about improving its fitness for purpose.

Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures
I’m delighted to say that I have the privilege of co-ordinating the new pan-European three-year project called ‘Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futuresx’ to explore all of this further, starting formally in May 2021 (Figure 5 shows the project logo). The project aims to advance guidance to improve the resilience and adaptability of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) in the face of uncertainty. A European concept, SUMPs represent a shift from being forecast-led to vision-led in terms of planning, with greater emphasis on outcomes (beyond accommodating traffic) and a recognition that shaping the future should be a participatory process (reflective of a diverse society).

The project is research-based and practice-oriented involving academic, city authority, national transport authority and consultancy partners in Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. Its approach involves four phases: (i) theory – deepening systems thinking regarding triple access, developing and exploring plausible accessibility scenarios, and identifying triple-access measures; (ii) practice – critically examining existing urban mobility plans and the guidance they have followed, and engaging with plan developers; (iii) design – examining the existing knowledge base and wider pool of practitioner and expert insight to then draft a TAP for uncertain futures handbook; and (iv) application – applying the handbook across seven case study cities to review and rework their urban mobility planning approaches and evaluate the contribution to urban mobility planning of the new handbook’s guidance.

What times we live in! Transport and society are in a state of flux. How we plan for the future of transport is in a state of flux. As you are hopefully aware, the revised competencies for the Transport Planning Professional, launched in March 2021, give greater emphasis to uncertainty and a need to bring constructive challenge into our behaviours as professionals. With that in mind, I extend a warm invitation to other transport planners to critically reflect upon this proposition for triple access planning. We’d love to hear from you.

Glenn Lyons is the Mott MacDonald professor of future mobility at UWE Bristol, and the coordinator for the project Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures.


This article has previously been published in Local Transport Today.
Lyons, G. (2021). Discovering ‘the sweet spot’. Local Transport Today, 823, 17 May, 16-17.

The article is also available as pdf: