2020 Vision: The role of young professionals in shaping the future of transport

Last month, the FTVG led one of PTRC’s “Fireside Chats”; looking back at some of the findings of the Transport Visions Network and the way ahead for the FTVG initiative.  This article outlines some of the key findings from the session.


If we thought the world of transport was uncertain before COVID-19, the impact of the recent pandemic has dramatically expanded several of the challenges we were facing at the start of 2020.

We often think that academics and senior professionals are the “thought leaders” when it comes to tackling the trickier questions affecting the transport industry.  However, I know there is a tremendous amount of untapped energy for taking on these questions from early career professionals in transportation.  The only thing that is sometimes lacking is the time, resources and connections to explore these fully. 

Getting young professionals to contribute to the transport debate is nothing new. Twenty years ago, a mixture of academics and those starting out life in the public and private sectors formed the Transport Visions Network (TVN).  Its aim was to amplify the views of young people into the debate concerning the future of transport and its role in society at the beginning of the 21st Century.  Between 2000 and 2003, the group published eight papers outlining the main findings of the initiative; encompassing views on scenario planning, travel demand management, land use planning, inclusive growth, freight and logistics.

How pertinent are those debates in the world of transport today?  Are we still grappling with the same issues or has the emphasis for 2020’s emerging transport professionals now shifted, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 and the climate emergency?

To answer these questions, a mixed panel of emerging career professionals and original members of the TVN was assembled as part of the PTRC Fireside Chat series.  The session was intended to act as both a retrospective view on the issues faced by transport professionals in 2000, and a prospective view to the challenges they could face up to in 2020.

The session was organised as part of the launch of the Future Transport Visions Group (FTVG); a successor organisation to the TVN to help emerging career professionals shape the future of transport.  It began by thinking about whether much had changed in the world of transport between 2000 and 2020.

Some things never change?

Starting with TVN members, Professor Greg Marsden recounted his time at Southampton University and the beginnings of a network of transport of young practitioners who set out to “save the world” and make their voices heard.  

As one of the authors of the “Vehicles and Infrastructure” paper, Greg highlighted several aspects the network tried to address that are still current; including the continued focus on infrastructure provision over social change in transport, which continues today in the response to COVID-19.

Fellow TVN member Nicola Kane also outlined a similar tension from her work on the “Societies and Lifestyles” paper; where both a “community oriented” and an “individual oriented” vision for the future had been put forward.  These debates are still being played out in discussions over shared mobility vs. personal mobility.

Ali Clabburn pointed out that these tensions have often resulted in inaction.  There remain issues with congestion, access to affordable transport and social inclusion; but the critical issue remains decarbonisation.  

All TVN panellists observed that working towards a decarbonised future was a key priority in both 2000 and 2020.  The prominence of the environmental agenda was predicted in some of the TVN papers, but Ali emphasised that since 2000, carbon emissions had not reduced significantly; a factor that needs to change if we’re to reach a Net Zero future by 2040.

The challenge of decarbonisation was picked up by our emerging career professionals panel.  Daniel McCool agreed that decarbonisation should frame the transport debate in 2020; and indeed offers a clearer path towards choosing what sort of future younger professionals want.  Clare Linton highlighted that younger people are more climate-aware than ever and that their energy, enthusiasm and activism should influence their professional life.

The panellists all recognised that the transport industry has always been slow to react to change.  Laura Menendez Gonzalez characterised this through her experience in the contracting industry, where the technologies for building and maintaining a carbon-neutral network simply did not exist yet.  

This challenge was echoed by Nicola who said that delivering bold transport visions has always been hard but broadly people all want the same thing; clean, liveable and accessible neighbourhoods and perhaps more work was needed to understand ways of achieving common ground.  Ali also emphasised the practicalities of delivering better carbon futures by arguing that “80% of the solutions are there; but we’re not adopting them quick enough.”  There’s an opportunity for young professionals to look into pilot studies and people-driven data to help move things forward, as well as trying to find something novel.  Greg agreed that there are benefits to revisiting old approaches as well as inventing new ones;

“I think a lot of our debate cycles round; perhaps we need to look back as well as look forward to understand why certain things are difficult to change.”

Prof. Greg Marsden

Opportunities for Change

Some things, then do not change; but that shouldn’t stop young professionals re-engaging with these challenges and looking at what might be done differently to make a difference to our future.

Daniel suggested that some of the adaptations necessitated by COVID-19 could be viewed as a catalyst for change.  With increased home-working and continued restrictions on public transport, he argued that better spaces and walkable neighbourhoods could become more desirable as people’s working environment becomes progressively more localised.

In a similar vein, Clare also highlighted that e-commerce was becoming more widespread on the transport network as people ordered more goods and services to their home offices.  With homes taking greater prominence in the distribution network, parts of the network could be rewired from serving commuter traffic towards our town and city centres to enhancing local connectivity for all.

Home working and e-commerce are both vehicles for change as they take a more prominent role in encouraging us to walk and cycle more often, as well as present a growing logistics sector that could lead the way in decarbonising our network.  These changes are also driven by changes in technology; another opportunity which was recognised by our panellists.  

In 2000, the best-selling phone was the Nokia 3310 and the Playstation 2 had just come onto the market.  Whilst some of the underlying transport debates may not have changed, technology that enables mobility and connectivity has come a long way.

Ali pointed out that only 25% of the population had access to the internet in 2000, whereas today’s emerging career professionals are far more perceptive of changes in technology around them.  He also demonstrated how advances in technology make data more readily available, allowing us to understand the world around us more effectively than 20 years ago and more readily adapt to change.

“Has everything been invented already?  Are we looking at better ways of implementing the same things?”

Laura Menendez Gonzalez

Laura made an interesting point echoed by some of our panellists that the opportunity could lie in finding fresh and more effective avenues towards implementation rather than inventing new solutions.  This would capitalise on some of the opportunities highlighted by Daniel and Clare; neither e-commerce or liveable cities are new concepts but offer a route for us to consider the broader challenges of decarbonising our industry.   The inherent risk, as Ali pointed out, was approaching these emerging opportunities in the same way as we would in 2000.

Disruptive influences

Our panelists called for a more proactive and disruptive approach to unlocking these opportunities and driving the decarbonisation agenda forward to avoid the “paralysis” that has characterised the past 20 years.

Greg argued that the current approach of individual psychological and economic models has hindered our ability to engender social change.  In previous years, lengthy consultation, evidence gathering and modelling approaches have taken considerable resources to prepare and often fail to build consensus.   Given the ongoing climate emergency, many panellists agreed that we won’t reach a carbon neutral future fast enough if we continually try to seek consensus.

So how should emerging career professionals approach this agenda? Should they be a disruptive influence on the industry for our collective benefit?

Nicola built on Daniel’s earlier observation that the vision we all want to achieve is clearer than ever and whilst the pathways towards that vision are uncertain, we should not let that impede progress.  There could be several routes to achieving the same outcome that could all be followed at once.  

Greg illustrated several novel approaches to engineering change from outside the transport sector.  He pointed out that sociologists look at where change is already happening and try to apply these solutions in other communities rather than focussing on individual needs.  He also referenced his previous work on disruptive influences on the industry which illustrated just how adaptable societies and communities can be in the face of change.  

Clare agreed there were several lessons that could be learned from outside the transport sector, and suggested that emerging career professionals are typically more open to learning from what works well elsewhere, such as the use of ride-share or house-share apps.  Ali also observed that the companies who operated these apps took a customer-led approach to build their brand and increase uptake and perhaps there were lessons to be learned there.  

The impact of COVID-19 was an obvious disruptive influence picked up by our panellists.  Clare and Laura said that it compounds several of the issues facing public transport with declining patronage.  Ali also said that business travel will change, which will impact on the aviation industry too.  Previous fireside chats have discussed this issue in more detail, but something that emerged from all our panellists was that disruption in this case could be an opportunity for change.  

Greg said that COVID-19 has taught us to pay attention to all the trips that people make, shifting away from the previous emphasis on commuting trips which only account for 20% of travel.  It previously was our focus because of the concentration of issues during traditional peak hours, but as we gear towards more flexible hours and home-working, we need to rethink service patterns funding implications.  

Clare echoed this sentiment by saying that soon planners will need to make a choice between developing centralised spaces and localised spaces depending on where travel patterns shift towards in response to COVID.  Laura said that if we shift towards the latter then we may see fewer people living in city centres and more people choosing to stay in a local community, going back to the smaller urban centres we saw 40 years ago.

Reflecting on the disruptive influences that have taken place over the last 20 years, our TVN panellists discussed some aspects they correctly predicted in their research papers.  Nicola pointed towards the increased support available for families and working parents, and a greater focus on quality of life and placemaking.  Similarly Greg flagged some of the emerging modes he and his co-authors predicted, including e-bikes, scooters, hydrogen vehicles, automated pods and drones, as well as the growing emphasis of the environmental agenda.  

Could emerging career professionals therefore also make some transformative predictions about how we rewire our changing transport system?  Ali is optimistic;

“We’ve got to listen to all voices, particularly young voices coming into the industry with their ideas and their beliefs.  They come with clarity of thought; they are more in touch with where things are going.”

Ali Clabburn

Daniel struck a note of caution, a point echoed by Professor Glenn Lyons in the chat.  Both stated that there is a risk of young professionals not being taken seriously, particularly if there is an activist streak in their argument.  Daniel and Ali both pointed out several vested commercial interests in the existing transport system and how dismantling some of these previously profitable structures could prove challenging.  

What emerging career professionals can offer

In the midst of all these changes, how can emerging career professionals contribute to the transport debate and challenge the status quo?  Daniel argued that people in the industry have been trained in the individualistic, analytical approaches and had not developed the right skillsets to be truly disruptive and win over hearts and minds.  Laura also pointed out that selling this vision of the future can be difficult when cleaner technologies are often more expensive and risk excluding some quarters of society, particularly in poorer and more rural areas.

However, Nicola observed that many emerging career professionals she has worked with have better communication skills, which she saw as a critical part of delivering vision-led strategies.  

“It is a challenge to engender change, and this is sometimes magnified through technology and social media.  However, when thinking about people’s day to day life and the places they want to see, there is often more consensus than you think.”  

Nicola Kane

Nicola went on to say that young professionals are better equipped to sell a vision of the future that “the silent majority” can become invested in, and perhaps this is what has been missing in the past 20 years as the evidence-based arguments have been going on throughout to little effect.

Clare agreed, and argued then generally people did want to see more sustainable and livable spaces, which happen to be the most resilient to disruptions in the transport system.  Both Greg and Daniel reflected that the disruption wrought by COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to reskill and upskill our young professionals, with several opportunities available to engage in the carbon debate, particularly through the proliferation of online learning.  

Ali said that it is becoming increasingly difficult in a competitive market for emerging career professionals to get on the radar of employers.  Online learning and “building your brand” online could offer a route to this, particularly as employers struggle to offer on the job learning outside the office environment.  

Clare agreed and highlighted that networking skills in particular have become more difficult to refine since the pandemic that honing younger professionals’  networking skills has been made harder by the pandemic.  However, some of the approaches adopted by the TVN could still prove valuable now.

An emerging fellowship

Looking ahead, opportunities for young professionals to engage in the wider debates facing the industry could be a positive influence to developing those skills and growing a following within the sector.

Both Greg and Nicola reflected on the long email debates exchanged across the TVN in the days of dial-up internet and how today’s communication technologies could enable faster, almost instantaneous exchanges of ideas.

The TVN members talked about how these early exchanges enabled them to make friends and colleagues whose paths cross frequently; marking the start of a new fellowship that has served them well over their career. 

All the panellists agreed that the challenges and disruptions facing the industry; both old and new make it an exciting time to be in the world of transport, but that the industry needed exciting visions to address the urgency of the decarbonisation agenda.  

“It takes a long time to change an industry; its really important to get your voices into the debate early on in your career.  We’ve got some very difficult changes to make and we need to bring everyone with us.”

Prof. Greg Marsden

It is hoped that the FTVG will offer a route for some emerging career professionals to explore these challenges, as well as helping them to form collaborative groups that could help in fostering some of the cross-sector connections our panel saw as essential for enabling new ideas and progress.

Several panellists pointed out that to avoid a climate catastrophe, we need to take action in the next two to three years, not in the next 20.  Emerging career professionals will play a key part in leading the charge.  In the face of growing uncertainty, a global pandemic and a climate emergency, perhaps the most compelling argument for taking part was made by Ali;

“If it wasn’t for the network I could have given up on making the changes I wanted to see in the industry.  There were people in the network who would challenge me, believe in me and encourage me.  We’re still fighting many of the same battles.  I would highly encourage anyone to jump at the opportunity to help realise their idea because it’ll be great for them and their careers”

Ali Clabburn

With the launch of FTVG, an opportunity now exists for early career professionals to make their voices heard and influence the debate, whilst advancing their own personal and professional development.

Key Questions and Challenges

The session proved to be both nostalgic and a call to action for the next generation of emerging transport professionals.  Several themes emerged from the discussion which may be of interest to prospective participants of the FTVG.

The FTVG initiative will be progressing over the next year and we look forward to providing some views on these challenges.

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