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.

Triple Access Planning

System Thinking: a powerful tool to Triple Access Planning

I have been working as a researcher in sustainable transport and new technologies for the last seven years, and in the last couple of years I had the opportunity to work on research projects that explored the future of transport systems, including the role of digitalisation, new technologies and decarbonisation. I was therefore very excited when I was offered the opportunity to work in the Triple Access Planning (TAP) for Uncertain Futures project.

My first task as part of the research team at the University of the West of England (UK) was to design and develop a tool to support Triple Access Planning. I was told we were going to use System Thinking to better understand the interconnections affecting accessing access in urban areas between the Transport system and the Telecommunication and Land Use system. Therefore, I did some research to understand better what that meant in practice.

I asked myself: “What is a system?”, and I found a very nice definition by Donella Meadows, who says that a system is “a set of elements or parts interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time”. I was quite happy with this definition, as I had been introduced to Transport Systems when I started my master’s in Transport Engineering, and I learned how a transport system and the internal relationships among its components can be dynamic, complex, and influenced by a series of internal and external factors (or systems). This might sound very complicated, but it is fundamental to understand how to design a better, more efficient, inclusive, and cleaner transport system in the future.

With system thinking I learned that it is possible to understand why and how systems behave the way they do, and how it can be used to communicate and share expertise with local experts and planners. Barry Richmond talked about “System thinking” already in 1987, suggesting it can be used to analyse and explain complex interdependencies. The literature does not provide a unique definition, but rather a range of different descriptions of what “system thinking” is, and this underlines its high complexity. To simplify it in a few words, we can say that it is a system of thinking about systems.

When we use system thinking, we need to consider:

  • Elements, components, or variables, which characterise the system.
  • Interconnections, relationships, or flows, between the elements, highlighting dependencies.
  • A purpose, which is the most important thing we need to have clear when we decide to use system thinking, as this will guide us in understanding how the system behaves.

There are several tools that we can use to apply system thinking, including Network Analysis, System Dynamics, Logic Mapping, Viable System Mapping, Cognitive Mapping, Theory of Change, Soft Systems Methodology, Agent-Based Modelling, and Causal Loop Diagrams.

We wanted to co-design with the project partners (e.g., academics and practitioners) a system of systems that included the Transport System, the Telecommunication System and the Land Use System. Due to the nature of the research we decided to use the Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) method, as it is very helpful when you want to transfer and visualise the variables (and their relationships) that you already have in your mind in a diagram. CLDs use only two elements: variables (indicated with their names) and causal links (indicated by arrows). The (direct/indirect) nature of the relationships between variables is indicated by a positive or negative sign.

Figure 1. Example of loops from the diagram we co-designed at the workshop series.

In addition, the CLD allows to identify feedback loops and priority areas where to start/focus and therefore design a strategy. We found that this is a very powerful tool when you want to work on system thinking with experts who speak different “languages” (e.g., academics, practitioners, transport planners and local authorities). This is why system thinking and CLDs can be used by practitioners and transport planners to explore how the bigger-picture dynamics can change when some parts of the system change.

Across five online multi-stakeholder workshops with the TAP partners we have considered a range of variables with different natures (e.g., Congestion, Land Use Diversity, Homeworking), all interconnected within the three sub systems (Transport, Telecommunication and Land Use) to compose the Triple Access System. System Thinking was completely new to most of the participants, so we ran a first workshop to allow them to familiarise with the concept. First reactions from some participants were something like “Why am I here?”, “What are they asking me to do?”, “I don’t feel I have the right expertise to do this”, and this is why having a well-designed whiteboard and a good moderator are crucial.

All things considered, I have gathered some tips to use System Thinking in the future:

  • Identify stakeholders– including transport practitioners, city planners, local authorities and academics/experts. It does not matter if they have little (or no) experience in system thinking, as you will oversee the process, making them feel comfortable when you are running your workshop(s). It is important that they are varied and have a role in influencing the system.
  • Think about access – not only transport issues and solutions. Transport is a derived demand, so we should move beyond ‘only considering transport solutions for transport problems’ and consider other additional solutions, as transport solutions may not be the only recourse to addressing transport problems. This include the strong link between transport and land use, but also other solutions within the broader concept of urban accessibility.
  • Consider the key role of Digital Connectivity in the future of urban accessibility – especially with virtual mobility replacing physical mobility to fulfil urban access needs. This “third leg” has been largely ignored in transport planning so far, but it is increasingly finding its space in changing the way people access and move in an urban area.
  • Think about the Triple Access System – try to understand how variables are related to each other and how the system behaves in order to design a sustainable urban mobility plan.
  • Keep it simple – understandable by experts and non-experts, and easy to use – avoid ambiguity when you define a variable, which would only unnecessarily increase complexity, and try to keep simple relationships among variables, avoiding direct connections when indirect connections are possible.
  • Be patient – take your time and do not feel rushed to find a conclusion quickly. TAP is an approach to visualise and communicate what our minds think urban accessibility is. It can therefore support researchers, practitioners and transport and city planners to better think what the system is, and at the same time to understand what implications a specific measure can have. It is therefore important to gather a good understanding of how the smaller issues/relationships/sub-components contribute to the bigger picture.

Thinking together added incredible value to our understanding of what Triple Access System means and how the sub-systems can interact to each other’s in a complex and uncertain future world.

I hope this post helped you understanding how the power of system thinking can support us in future transport planning. If you liked this post or have any questions/comments or other resources to share, please contact me at


Daniela Paddeu is Senior Research Fellow in Transport Studies at UWE Bristol, and a member of the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project team.

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

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.

Triple Access Planning

Shifting mobility trends in a fast changing world mean that transport planners have to get to grips with uncertainty

The way in which citizens move around cities and regions across the globe has been changing in ways that were not anticipated and has left public authorities unsure how to plan transport infrastructure and services. I chaired a working group of the International Transport Forum which looked at why we had not foreseen counter trends in travel behaviour, what we can do to better anticipate future travel demand and how we can plan transport given deep uncertainty. The findings of the working group highlight the importance of the work we are now conducting in the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project.

The International Transport Forum (ITF) is an intergovernmental organisation with 63 member countries that acts as a think tank for transport policy and organises an Annual Summit of transport ministers. One of its activities is to convene working groups of international experts to conduct in-depth studies of transport policy issues identified as priorities by ITF member countries.

In 2019, I was asked by the ITF to chair a working group on ‘Travel Transitions and New Mobility Behaviours’. I had previously led a study for the UK Department for Transport exploring the reasons for a decline in car driving by young people. As I was writing a discussion paper for the working group, everyone’s lives changed dramatically when the world was struck down by Covid-19. The subject of the working group took on increased significance as we experienced the biggest shift in travel behaviour in living memory.

The pandemic affected how the working group operated. Instead of meeting in Paris, the working group met via zoom on two days in December 2020. A sign of things to come? We were taking advantage of improved digital interaction technologies to save on international travel and still conduct productive business. Representatives of 16 countries attended the meeting and discussed the challenges they were facing and the responses they were making to uncertainty in travel trends.

After the online meeting, I worked with the ITF secretariat and invited experts to write a research report. The working group published its research report “Travel Transitions: How Transport Planners and Policy Makers Can Respond to Shifting Mobility Trends” in August 2021. The report discusses why breaks with past mobility trends occurred but were not foreseen and makes recommendations on how to plan for a future where very little is certain any more. The report was introduced on 20 September via a webinar to a global audience and I would encourage you to have a look and listen to a recording of the event.

As well as my role in overseeing the writing of the report and writing a chapter on ‘Trend breaks and travel transitions’, I was joined by two Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project colleagues in contributing to the report. Glenn Lyons (UWE Bristol) wrote a chapter on ‘Handling uncertainty in assessing travel transitions’ and Karolina Isaksson (National Road and Transport Research Institute, Sweden) co-wrote a chapter on ‘Governance challenges and opportunities’.  

The report highlights how travel behaviour has evolved in unexpected ways in urbanised areas in the early 21st century. It examines how significant breaks with past trends happened and why these shifts were not foreseen. It is explained how forecast-led transport planning is not well equipped to handle deep uncertainty. The report introduces approaches which explicitly address uncertainty, are vision-led and enable the development of resilient plans. It also considers how governance and institutions can be adapted to support such a paradigm shift.

The ITF report not only emphasises the importance of getting to grips with uncertainty but also the need to move away from focusing only on mobility and recognising that the main purpose of transport – to enable access to opportunities – can also be achieved by spatial proximity and digital connectivity. I’m pleased to say that this is in harmony with the underlying principles of the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project. Glenn Lyons has introduced the Triple Access System in a previous blog on this site and how Triple Access Planning has the Triple Access System in mind. I look forward to working with the rest of the project team over the next three years to respond to the challenges highlighted in the ITF report and to develop new ways of planning for urban mobility.

Kiron Chatterjee is Associate Professor in Travel Behaviour at UWE Bristol, and a member of the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures project team.

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: