Transport Theory

N.b. Transport is as understood in the context of the movement of people and goods.

This paper aims to explore the meaning, relevance, importance, understanding and application of transport theory in the United Kingdom. Reference will be made to the major English-speaking thinkers in the field and a conclusion will speculate upon the driving forces behind our understanding.

The theory, objectives and application of transport theory may be the most neglected aspect of the social sciences. We are aware that throughout history science in general has sometimes suffered, perhaps systematically, for some ulterior motive (Galileo provides an example where the church has not wished an orthodoxy to be supplanted) (Manning 1996), or even by sheer weight of peer pressure (Charles Darwin’s basic theories still have not gained universal acceptance) (Sacherman 1997). A search on Google to explore transport and social science reveals the following ‘hits’ on 5th January 2003

Social Science theory 5,180
Social Science theorists 96
Transport theory 1,600 (95% non-relevant)
Transport theorists 13 (7 relevant)
Michel Foucault (pre-eminent social theorist) 98,500
Mayer Hillman (pre-eminent transport ‘theorist’) 752

Transport is one of, if not the most critical components of Geographic theory. Without transport there is no Geography, as transport provides that means for judgement of separation. Without transport (in its most rudimentary form the transfer of information between two points), nothing exists upon which position can be fixed and without relative position there is no means for comparison of situation, no scale upon which to judge value, therefore no means of understanding of the world or speculation upon the optimal courses of actions which are so critical to the human psyche and general global well-being.

Current transport theory is, in itself, a product of economics, physics, empirical observation and, perhaps, just plain intuition. It is, within academia, a ‘peripheral’ topic with few disciples, and even fewer practitioners. It is difficult to think of an area of such vital theoretical and applied importance which suffers such neglect. Typically, the bookshop at Leeds University (Fig 1) strikingly indicates the perceived importance of transport relative to other subjects in the shelf space devoted to the literature – Harry Potter has a bigger section!

Leeds University Bookshop 2003 Leeds University Bookshop 2003 Leeds University Bookshop 2003
Chaucer and Old Norse (including Icelandic) Feminist, Gay and Lesbian Transport

Fig 1: Topics on Bookshelves at Leeds University (Relative)

What accounts for this consignment of transport to this small and practically forgotten corner of academic purgatory? Is the theory so simple that it is already well understood and needs no further debate? Without doubt an academic involved with the study of particle physics will command the respect of others in his or her own area of expertise, yet it seems that, although the average Englishman ‘can’t dance’, when it comes to transport, he declares himself a better driver than anyone else and an consummate expert in the field. Within Medicine, Law, Education or any other application of theory there is, at least some, acknowledgement to meritocracy, yet the infrastructure and governance of transport is created and maintained, in general, by vested interests and engineers with little interest in theory.

So what is the transport theory? Somewhere on the steps of Montmartre is there some bespectacled genius waving his Gaulloise in the air while speculating upon the inner truth about personal mobility to a devoted crowd of free thinking avant-garde intellectuals? This paper can only explore what exists (and from the bookshelves above we can see this is relatively little), and endeavour to place it in context of social science thinking in general.

Predict and Provide

The application of transport theory has been largely dependant upon the adage of ‘Predict and Provide’ – successive administrations have extrapolated the growth in mobility to some future date and have tried to anticipate by building the infrastructure capacity needed to accommodate this growth.

The term is applied to many planning decisions, but especially with regard to transport. Quite simply the growth of traffic was calculated and if, as was usually the case, those predictions exceeded the capacity available, then the provision of the infrastructure (i.e. new roads) was prioritised. The superficially intuitive strategic axioms were:

A simple search on the internet will indicate that ‘Predict and Provide’ is definitely not the ‘flavour of the month’. At one time the UK Prime Minister’s own site (formerly at,now removed) stated: “’Predict and Provide’ Flawed

Several premises are required to hold true for predict and provide to underpin any transport philosophy, the most important of which are:

The consensus of opinion would put into question the validity of predict and provide in that a considerable body of thinking is becoming increasingly sceptical about the ‘benefits’ of greater mobility and it might be safe to say it is now well understood that , for instance, road building, induces traffic growth.

Transport has changed rapidly since 1838. This change has accelerated post war, driven by commercial concerns and apparent political imperatives. Administered by politicians and engineers, transport has not enjoyed that introspection necessitated by public pressure in other fields.

New Realism

Social welfare has always been the concern of many voters but these voters do not see transport provision as being detrimental to their interests. Ecological concerns coupled with the more obvious results of road building have provoked some contrary concern about transport policy. The most obvious stance in modern transport thinking was labelled the ‘New Realism’, encapsulated in which was a fundamental understanding that supply can never meet unrestrained demand. David Bannister sums up

  1. “Consensus that projected traffic growth is not sustainable
  2. Proposed road schemes will not solve the problem
  3. Limitations on the use of car and substantially raising the costs of travel
  4. Awareness of their environmental and social costs of unlimited mobility
  5. Reduce the need to travel – the only means to improve the environment and congestion”

formerly at downloads/sem7pres1.ppt

Prior to the 1990s it might be observed that transport thinking had little or no prominent ethical or philosophical dimension. Whilst it has yet to suffer over deep, complex and often abstract postulates so often associated with Post modern academia, there has emerged a group of people who might be described as ‘transport thinkers’.

Mayer Hillman, Professor Emeritus, The Policy Studies Institute, is known for ‘controversial’ views on road safety and his particular tenacity over established, yet misguided transport thinking. His stance is not that of a devil’s advocate, more his challenges to ‘official’ thinking seem based on expounding the obvious over the accepted. “survival rises with the experience of risk taking”, “Walking bus.. Safe Houses.. ParentWatch.. Stranger danger campaign.. Yell Run and Tell.. all contribute to a siege mentality in children’s minds. The effect of them all is to promote paranoia among parents”

The New Mobility Agenda

John Adams is professor of geography at University College London. A critic of the ‘technical’ solution such as cleaner engines and automatic guidance, his best known of many, challenging ideas is that greater progress might be made towards greater public safety by replacing car seat belts with a spike in the steering wheel pointing directly at the driver’s heart. We see here a counter-intuitive measure which under brief and simple logical analysis actually provides a valid consideration... (His thoughts have been somewhat vindicated by insurance companies who no longer discount for Anti-Lock Braking systems) “The fact that there are now about one third as many children killed every year in road accidents as in 1922, when there was hardly any traffic and a 20mph speed limit, does not mean that the roads are now three times safer for children to play in; they have become so dangerous that children are not allowed out any more”

John Whitelegg is research leader of the Stockholm Environmental Institute based at York advocating a fundamental restructuring of transport supply and demand to reflect sustainability principles and delivery of health objectives through transport policy. He has also illustrates links (or lack of them) between transport investment and economic ‘progress’ as well as coupling human rights and ethical issues with transport policy. “We have lost the plot in terms of human-centred, supportive and modest transport services that take a kind and nurturing view of the travel needs of everyone within a well planned local environment”

Phil Goodwin Professor of Transport Policy and Director, ESRC Transport Studies Unit has written on the effects of policy instruments, the economic effects of traffic restraint and policy bias due to inappropriate modelling and forecasting. His fondness for work that “appeals to the intellectual though not always the politician”(1997) leads to his advocacy of, for example, Road Pricing, which since the introduction of Congestion charging in London in 2003 has been given empirical support, whereas his arguments which were somewhat subsumed within the general realpolitik prior to February 2003. “It (transport) is one of those cases where Adam Smith's individuals pursuing their own best interests do not add up to Jeremy Bentham's greatest good for the greatest number. The benefit can only be delivered by intervention”

Peter Newman, Director of Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, Australia has since the 1970s observed and recorded the inverse correlation between economic growth and private transport provision. “With the urban freeway, it is now clear that the economic basis for its continuance is as shaky as its moral basis and alternatives do exist and are well demonstrated in European and Asian Cities” urban_freeway_newman.pdf

Jeff Kenworthy, Senior Lecturer in Urban Environments at the Murdoch's Institute for Science and Technology Policy (ISTP), Australia has alongside Newman, established immense data sets, providing a raft of quantitative evidence. In "Millennium Cities Database for Sustainable Transport"(1996), population, economy, structure, vehicles, taxis, network, parking, public transport, individual mobility, choice, efficiency and environmental and environment statistics for over 200 cities indicate the failure of private transport to engender economic growth or better quality of life.

There are doubtless many others who have, to some degree, dispensed with the constraints of the ideas within established practice and taken a more holistic view of transport. Nevertheless it is difficult to establish a list of transport philosophers. During research for this article it was possible to telephone Mayer Hillman and conduct a 30 minute conversation with him, a luxury which would be very much more difficult to afford with the respectively prominent academics in almost any other field. Despite this ‘low profile’, The Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) report of 1994 basically accepted the New Realism whilst outlining the flaws of predict and provide and the Government White Paper of 1997 ‘A New Deal for transport – Better for everyone’ was a statement embracing much of the thinking. Despite these reports and six years of government however, On 12th July 2003 a letter was addressed to the then secretary of state for transport, Alistair Darling from 28 signatories from experts from a variety of fields including traffic safety, engineering, economics, geography, psychology and political science ( While admitting to a non unanimity on the issue of solutions it expressed ‘widespread dissatisfaction with its (transport’s) present quality, efficiency, equity and environmental impacts’.

There is, it seems, little or no coherent transport theory, despite the simplicity of a reasonable objective, i.e. to bring about a net social benefit. Transport policy has been conducted by engineers, not social theorists, and has perhaps been driven by inappropriate factors. A relatively small group within and around the discipline endeavour to apply academic thinking to the topic, but are gravely constrained, if only by the lack of numbers. This thinking, it must be stressed is hardly revolutionary. It is based on logic, economics and empirical evidence. That it cuts against the grain of established practice may be conceded, but the flaw herein would be with the status quo. Now; whilst the current government had promised no new road building, we see that many schemes are now promised, along with much house building and a huge increase in airport capacity, all justified by a predict and provide philosophy. What makes this approach so pervasive? It seems obvious that at least too some degree transport theory can not but be influenced by powerful interests and the general public. It does not take a great deal of research to see that there are many more inputs to a modern person’s psyche endorsing the private motor car than not. Practically every form of media comprises a high percentage of advertising for cars which in turn must, in some cases, affect the editorial content. Virtually every work place has a hierarchy of transport users which puts the boss’s car by the front door. Expensive motor cars turn heads, are the subject of envy and admiration and qualitative personal research reveals that car ownership even increases the likelihood of successful mating. From a very early age we have all been subject to an unremitting bombardment of information advocating the motor car and whether consciously or sub-consciously this must affect the majority of thinking. There is absolutely no getting away from the fact that cars are comfortable, fast and often enjoyable to drive. According to the World Health Organisation ( motor cars account for a World Trade Centre death toll each and every day, yet George W. Bush on one hand devotes billions in pursuit of the perpetrators of 7/11 whilst expressing the wish that everybody should have a motor car. This behaviour only reflects the inconsistency of a general public who, for example, seem extremely worried about the use of recreational or performance enhancing drugs but oblivious to the dangers of recreational or performance enhancing motorised mobility.

Transport theory may suffer from undue public pressure in that it may be pointed out that the disadvantages of transport are very much removed from their source. Global problems created by transport are displaced both physically and to a relatively unknown degree, temporally. Only a third of people who die in motor accidents are the vehicle driver – another third are not even in the car ( The health benefits of not driving are beyond most users’ horizons and we can see from the example of smoking, that people will take considerable risks if the danger is not immediately tangible. Of all external costs of motoring only congestion is largely democratic in that it usually directly affects the congester (along with non driving road users). The pervasive acceptance, the semiotic imagery, the political support all deflect from real transport issues. The seduction of the motor car is almost complete, to the exclusion of logic and any sound theory which dares to flutter above the parapet.

Without doubt economics looms large in transport philosophy, and we can see where Economic theory has pre-empted transport thinking. When A.C.Pigou said

“A cheapening of knowledge and movement to individuals brought about by the transference of a part of the cost of these things to the state is quite a different thing and works quite differently from a cheapening bought about by a real fall in cost.. this sort of cheapening.. is likely to injure the national dividend” (The economics of welfare. Macmillan, 1920 pp 147)

we see a direct theoretical application to transport that a small portion of society has only recently embraced.

Pareto optimality, by which no individuals become worse off through specific action has been a central tenet of economics for nearly a century, yet principles of compensation are not adhered to in transport.

The Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, which accepts a more efficient outcome can leave some people worse off, has allowed neoclassical welfare econmics to be embraced by modern capitalist society typified in the eras of Thatcher and Reagan, nevertheless transport policy seems to pay no real attention to it whatsoever and seems incapable of providing an alternative justification. A Kaldor-Hicks improvement is any alternative that increases the economic value of social resources, yet the British Government indicate that the current UK motor transport system costs twice as much as the revenue it creates.

Where else might we look to for transport theory?

Perhaps a simple yet effective theory for transport could be illustrated by application of games theory, specifically using some variation on the "Prisoner's Dilemma" which illustrates how it is rational to behave uncooperatively, but also in a form of repetition (the iterated prisoner’s dilemma) the most successful strategies involve default cooperation with retaliation for non cooperation.

At a fundamental level we should ask if transport theory should be based on these observations and the validity of long term objectives of promulgation of ‘the selfish gene’. If the above were to apply we might understand that people would always make decisions which they perceived would give them some advantage, unless their perception of retaliation in the face of anti-social decisions happened to become great enough to displace that rational self-interest.

Transport theory is somewhat elusive, largely misunderstood easily ignored and often corrupted. The somewhat predictable nature of transport should lend the field to simple understanding, yet it appears that its philosophical basis at best appears to lag behind other disciplines and at worst is asphyxiated by illogical or less altruistic concerns.