Transport planners use lean times to forge path to a brighter future

Transport planning has taken a battering since the financial crash of 2008. A new report highlights the sector’s plight and considers what’s needed to deliver an upturn in fortunes.

22 Jun 2012 (provided by Local Transport Today), Category: Transportation Planning

Transport planners use lean times to forge path to a brighter future

If you’re a transport planner who’s been in full-time employment for the last five years, give yourself a pat on the back: you are one of the fortunate ones. Since the financial crisis of 2008 sparked a programme of austerity measures, the number of transport planning professionals in employment is estimated to have fallen by a whopping 30-40%.

That’s the view of the employers among the 50 senior UK transport planners who took part in seminars organised by the Transport Planning Society looking at the state of the profession. The planners, from the public and private sectors, academia and training organisations, aired their thoughts under Chatham House rules and the main themes have now been condensed into a report prepared with financial assistance from sector skills council Go Skills.

Participants reported that the collapse in transport planning activity had even prompted some of the highest value staff to be laid off. “There have been examples in the private sector of whole teams of expert modellers being made redundant.”

Many planners who remain in post have seen their salaries frozen; graduate recruitment programmes have been slashed; and some of the brightest entrants have switched to more secure and better paid occupations. At the other end of the age scale, experienced staff have taken early retirement, “frustrated by the pressures of the current situation and the lack of opportunity for creativity”.

For consultants, the declining workload has led to cut-throat competition for what work remains, with profit margins at levels “which would be unsustainable if perpetuated”. Multi-national consultancies have had the advantage of being able to send staff to work in overseas markets where business is more buoyant.  

From boom to bust

It’s a very different picture from that of just ten years ago when, against a backdrop of the DfT’s ambitious ten-year plan, the TPS set up the Transport Planning Skills Initiative, aiming to recruit an extra 1,000 people a year into the profession for ten years. The number of employer-sponsored UK transport Masters students jumped 50% between 2002 and 2009; the TPS and Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation launched the Transport Planning Professional qualification; and the TPS launched its own professional development scheme.

“It is no exaggeration to say that, over the past three years, much of the investment between 2003 and 2009 in skills development and building the profession’s resource has been lost,” the TPS laments.

Seminar participants reported a sharp reduction in staff training and professional development. The number of transport Masters students sponsored by employers fell from a high of 139 full-time equivalents in 2008/09 to just 49 in 2011/12. The TPS doesn’t anticipate an early reversal in fortunes, pointing to low levels of graduate recruitment, financial pressures, and the rising cost of Masters courses. It also reports a fall in the number of people following the TPS professional development scheme and says the uptake of the Transport Planning Professional qualification has been “relatively limited, particularly in the last couple of years”.

Green shoots

The TPS says its final seminar, held this spring, was markedly more upbeat than those held last summer. Participants felt the sector’s problems may have bottomed out, buoyed by the Chancellor’s Budget statement about the importance of infrastructure funding and the release of funding streams such as the DfT’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund and the Growing Places Fund. Nonetheless, there remains uncertainty about whether the upturn will be sustained and if it will lead to more recruitment. “It is expected that market conditions will continue to make it necessary for fewer to do more for several years to come,” says the TPS.

The society is, however, confident that the demand for transport planners will increase as the economy recovers and therefore suggests it is “highly probable that a deficit of skills is again likely to emerge”. “The DfT and the industry will need to engage effectively and in good time in order to prepare for this requirement,” it says, before adding gloomily: “At present there is no effective working relationship.”

“There are real concerns that the DfT does not see the capabilities of the transport planning profession and the capacity of the industry as being within its remit,” it says. “The impression reported at the workshops is that many DfT senior officials equate transport planning to the work of its division responsible for modelling and economic assessment, rather than the broad scope of the industry in contributing to improved economic output and making a positive contribution to the lifestyles in towns, cities and rural areas.”

Participants in the seminars contrasted the DfT’s outlook unfavourably with that of Transport Scotland “which has been very active in the development of the transport profession”. They also expressed fears that the Government’s localism agenda could further weaken the Department’s engagement with the profession, with local transport activities becoming a “marginal part” of departmental responsibilities. “There are real concerns that the DfT will cut back on research related to local activity and that will not be replaced at a local level,” the TPS?adds.

The future planner

In addition to exploring the sector’s challenges, the seminars considered the skillsets that the future transport planner will require. Alongside technical competence and the need for a knowledge of policy, legal and regulatory matters, the discussions highlighted a need to better communicate what transport planning delivers. The TPS believes planners need to move from “delivering findings to facilitating outcomes”. This demands “political nous as well as technical knowledge and presentation skills”.

“All too often, the outputs of modelling have been described in a way that fails to convey the costs and benefits of transport schemes in a manner that clients, politicians and the public in particular, fully understand.”

Transport planners need to become “more effective interpreters rather than just presenters of data”. “Advanced written and oral communication skills and the ability to adapt presentation style to match the needs and competencies of the target audience will become of paramount importance,” says the TPS. Planners also need to become “more self critical and ensure that technical judgment is made explicit and the reasons behind it fully explained”.

Action points

The report ends with a ten-point action plan, which the TPS will take forward via a working group. Some appear to be vague sentiments, for instance, “connecting the existing skills base with the new intake”. More concrete actions include a review of the TPP, simplifying public procurement and making it more open to SMEs (see panel); and “promoting a greater understanding among the public, as well as decision-makers, of what we do and why it is important”.

This story appeared in Local Transport Today issue 599 on the 22 June 2012

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