Is Travel Planning Irrelevant in the App World?

Is Travel Planning Irrelevant in the App World?


London-based Transport Planner, Mark Welch, gives The Rail Innovation Group his view on how Travel Planning policy hasn’t kept pace with digital products available to new homeowners.

What ever happened to Travel Planning, and do we need to care?

Post by Mark Welch, Transport Planner


Time was when discourse in the industry was heavily focused on the need to make people intelligent consumers when it comes to transport. That discourse does still exist but the chorus has waned. The argument went that the reason people were so devoted to car use was because they did not know how easy and convenient the alternatives were. The answer it was felt, and that is still applied in many places, is to hand them a big pack of paper leaflets, brochures, some promos for first few trips on transport and maybe the contact number for their designated travel planning expert. An attempt to move people closer to the level of making purchasing decisions on travel based on more perfect (complete) information. But this approach overlooked when that information is required and whether the consumer is confident enough to take a leap from what are often entrenched travel habit.


I had a look at the travel pack approved by my local council for a recent major house builder’s scheme of circa 70 homes. This is in a town with chronic highways congestion and fierce opposition to new house building. Sure enough residents get four local maps covering buses, rail, amenities and cycling and a picture of some cars and a caption stating that car clubs generally exist in the world but with no evidence actual provision appears to be made on the development site in question. Nice to know stuff but someone will be far more willing to try the bus if they can check online that it is actually going to arrive on time at the end of their road.


It is clear that our industry can do better than this by focusing in the right areas. The Travel Planning theme was most prevalent pre 2008 crash. Then, with crash and no cash and continued austerity for many local and public transport authorities, the discourse has quietened. But there was a second, perhaps more important factor at play that our industry is starting to embrace – the Smartphone.


Smart Consumers of Travel Planning


Whilst the shortage of cash lead to cuts in travel planning, arguably it was the smartphone that made this sustainable  – particularly in the large cities where transport operations have had higher levels of investment. The creation of one touch apps to get the information you need about the bus arrival time or train travel can lead to a trumping of the paper pack. This is particularly so for new home buyers, for whom it is the last bit of paperwork you want to be reading when unpacking and by the time you had unpacked it was probably thrown out with the boxes or hidden under a wardrobe. The speed at which the focus has dropped added to more so by the fact that new home buyers are often younger and therefore amongst the early adopters and early majority for new tech.


The smartphone and the increase in digital control systems for transport networks means there is increasingly an established bank of data used primarily for command and control that offers data yearning for smartphone app developers to utilise for consumers.


Looking ahead, it seems unlikely and perhaps desirable that the move away from a discourse about how to help people plan their travel by committing funds to human resources continues. Not least because outside the largest cities in England, the worthwhileness of the information that can be made available is lower and less persuasive for getting people out of car and onto public and active modes of transport.


The reality is there is a much more effective outcome to be had investing in digital command and control systems for networks and the opening up of the data for use by the digital economy. Perhaps ditching the planning obligation for travel plans and directing resources towards investing in digital systems is the best way forward now, especially with autonomous vehicles on the horizon? This approach will help cater for the fact that in the digital economy, we do not need to tell people how to travel – they just want to be able to tell for themselves.


Mark Welch TPP is a Transport Planner in London. Having experience of transit-orientated development whilst working at Docklands Light Railway and London Underground.