Understanding transport to design a better quality of life

SATC conference hears how transportation design can help society achieve its greatest aspirations.

Transportation has a fundamental role in supporting a thriving society. However, in fulfilling this purpose, it is also dependent on certain foundational factors and policy levers.

Understanding the complex interactions between these factors, as well as societal goals and transportation itself, is essential for transportation to help build a thriving society. 

This was the view of Victoria Sheehan, Executive Director of the United States’ Transportation Research Board (TRB), delivering a plenary address on day 2 of the Southern African Transport Conference.The TRB is a division of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The TRB is a major global opinion leader on transportation issues, especially through its publication, Critical Issues in Transportation, which addresses long-term global transportation policy issues.

Social goals

The latest edition of the publication has useful learnings, which can inform transport policy in many parts of the world. Sheehan shared insights from the report, which identified the following goals as being critical to meeting major challenges and building a thriving society:

  1. Building and sustaining a strong, competitive economy
  2. Mitigating and responding to climate change
  3. Increasing road safety
  4. Advancing public health
  5. Promoting equity and inclusion

Sheehan noted that building a strong, competitive economy required building an affordable transport sector. She noted that in the US, the transportation cost share of GDP had remained constant at around 6%, even while GDP had risen significantly.

“The affordability of transportation directly affects people’s access to opportunity,” said Sheehan. “In the United States, for instance, the proportion of people’s expenditure that goes to transportation is inversely correlated with income. The more you earn, the less of your income you spend on transport.”

However, she pointed out that in the European Union, the situation was exactly the opposite, and that the more people earned in Europe, the greater the proportion of their income they tended to spend on transport – for instance through car ownership.

Gendered transit policy

Travel behaviour also varies by gender. But transport infrastructure design doesn’t take this into account, said Sheehan.

“Women typically walk longer distances than men and make frequent, shorter trips with more stops to combine multiple tasks,” said Sheehan. “Men, by contrast, tend to follow more direct and linear patterns. Females engage in more non-work-related travel than males and are more likely to be accompanied by children or elderly relatives. They are also more reliant on public transport.”

Yet in most countries, transport infrastructure and services cater primarily to the needs of commuters who travel straight from their home to the central business district and back—an approach that largely overlooks the mobility needs and travel patterns of women.

Sheehan said achieving travel equity would require taking these factors into account and designing new solutions.

Lifestyles and land use

When it came to freight, Sheehan shared data indicating that the US – like South Africa – was seeing a rise in road freight volumes compared to rail.

“Society and individuals alike would benefit from a deeper understanding of how personal travel, and freight movement supports modern lifestyles and economic prosperity, so we can build policies to minimise social and environmental costs, and provide infrastructure that makes the safe and efficient movement of people and goods possible.”

Consolidating these various factors would require sophisticated governance structures, Sheehan said. The transport agency of the future would have clear standards for regional coordination, data stewardship, electric utilities and integrated land-use planning.

The latter factor – land use – was also critical to optimal transport outcomes.

“There needs to be a holistic approach to transportation,” said Sheehan. “You need to considerwhere affordable housing is situated, and how you situate and connect work, childcare, healthcare and education sites. This will require working with business and communities to design solutions.”

Sheehan said the goal of the TRB report was to challenge the transportation community to explore how travel affects personal growth and happiness and “how individual aspirations can be aggregated to represent society as a whole”.

“We believe that an improved understanding of these questions would inform public policy and help ensure that transportation leads to a thriving society.”