Side, close up view of the front of a bus travelling along a road. The bus is a zero emissions bus. ; Side, close up view of the front of a bus travelling along a road. The bus is a zero emissions bus. ;

Six ingredients for sustainable transport projects

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to participate or interact with transport and city projects worldwide; to be actively involved during a time when sustainable planning and development practices have come into focus. As more cities start to seriously tackle environmental challenges, we can distil lessons from their experiences to help future initiatives be more successful. Here are six key ingredients I have seen in successful, sustainable transport infrastructure projects.

1. Forge partnerships and listen to diverse perspectives 

Cities are home to people with diverse and complex needs. Planners must ensure they include different views and take input from vulnerable groups early in the design process. Listening to, and acting on, different perspectives can help make projects socially and technically successful. 

For example, Autodrive was a successful three-year project in the United Kingdom trialling the use of connected and self-driving vehicles on the streets of Milton Keynes. Fifteen different organisations from nine industry sectors collaborated on the project, bringing insights from various perspectives. Vulnerable stakeholder groups advised on accessibility and safety for people with visual impairments and other physical impairments. This interaction turned negative views to positive views as the trials  demonstrated clear advantages for these groups. At the same time, insurance companies raised important ethical and moral questions about decision-making and liability for autonomous vehicles. This led to important deeper levels of debate that informed policy and technical development of the software.

2. Make the case beyond money

Many major transport infrastructure projects do not always stack up from a narrow financial perspective. Successful sustainable transport and city projects will often articulate and weigh up the qualitative benefits to the community. While factors with monetary values are easy to calculate and compare, we must think beyond financial metrics. For example, how does a project improve wellbeing, social cohesion, community safety and youth engagement? How does it regenerate nature, protect water systems and encourage pollinators? Emphasising the importance of qualitative benefits and consideration of significant long-term change will influence decision-making and deliver projects that shape a better environment.

3. Create value throughout

Projects can create value in more ways than simple financial outcomes. A vision-first mindset can help create non-monetary value in a welcoming, desirable and healthy environment. 

For example, some major projects have a strong vision for more access to nature and restoring waterways. To achieve this vision, transport solutions can be developed to support that vision rather than using cosmetic greenery around roads and parking. Given that it can take many years to reach the planned outcomes of a major project, such initiatives provide essential gains in the short-term and can help convince the local community that the long-term vision is one worth pursuing.

Busy underground train station platform in Singapore with people getting on trains Busy underground train station platform in Singapore with people getting on trains

4. Deliver with complexity

It is one thing to know the right thing to do, but it is quite another to deliver it with the complexity of working across government departments, owners and stakeholders. Major infrastructure projects are complex and can become derailed by siloed working or disjointed strategies. Often the long-term solution will require short-term pain in order to change behaviours, or to release land from highway space for alternative uses – in many cases causing increased congestion or other negative outcomes that can be politically unpalatable. 

A complex long-term plan will often need to be delivered in deliberate and specific phases in a defined order to lock in benefits as the plan is delivered over time. This requires delivery stakeholders to understand their role in that delivery and the need for collaborations across departments to ensure that the intended outcomes are achieved.

If a design narrows a busy highway to reduce impact on a city, it must also enhance public transport, educate the travelling public, implement other relief measures to provide alternatives to the use of the highway, and discourage car use with restrictive policies. It must also lock in benefits to prevent induced demand and accept that congestion will increase in the short-term until behaviours change. All of these must be delivered in the right order with the right delivery partners to achieve the desired outcomes.

5. Include people and their behaviour in design

Transport planners and technical experts tend to be rational and logical. We must remind ourselves that human behaviour can sometimes be surprising and irrational. Planners can use human-centred design practices to understand human behaviours.

By understanding human emotional responses to the physical environment, such as light and sound creating the ‘personality’ of spaces, we can create positive experiences that help change mindsets over time and direct people towards the right mobility choices.

6. Stand on the shoulders of others

No city or project should start from scratch. Vast amounts of data and information on ‘what works’ is available, and global groups are dedicated to sharing best practices. This groundswell of knowledge helps create more certainty around the benefits of sustainable practices. Using real-life examples and demonstrating reduced risk can help attract investment. Investors are looking for sustainable, regenerative infrastructure projects. Our role in the industry is becoming increasingly important – we need to find these investable projects and be the conduit for ethical finance to accelerate change.