Transport Modelling – Where are we headed ?

I was fortunate enough to undertake a Masters Degree in Traffic and Transport Planning at the University of Birmingham in 1983-4. I have recently revisited the syllabus. It makes for interesting reading over 25 years later. The lectures covered the following:

  • Traffic Planning (traffic studies, traffic management, traffic signals, traffic noise, traffic safety);
  • Transport Planning (introduction to planning, transport planning, highway planning)
  • Transport Policy (transport policy and organisation, urban social problems, rail transport, air transport)
  • Statistics
  • Transport Economics
  • Computing
  • Operations Research
  • Urban Planning.

As my fellow students will remember, there was a very heavy emphasis on traffic and transport modelling in both the lectures and group exercises.

When I started my professional career it seemed that having an MSc was very much the preferred background for all transport planners. Since then the profession has grown substantially in numbers. Also, the range of skills that transport planners are expected to possess has expanded considerably. At the same time, many people who call themselves ‘transport planners’ have managed to specialise in quite narrow areas. Whilst an in-depth understanding of each technical discipline is essential to deliver services efficiently, it has lead to some blurring of our identity.

The creation of the Transport Planning Society was a welcome and long overdue development. It has begun to re-establish the skills base neccessary for career development and professional recognition. However, in my view, one technical skills area remains chronically under-valued – transport modelling.

Most people would agree that this is the skills area which is most difficult to master. Unfortunately, It also attracts the most high-profile criticism. Of course, academics, environmental activists and journalists like nothing better than to ‘rubbish’ the efforts of hard-working modellers from the public and private sectors.

So, what are the incentives for young transport planners to acquire modelling skills and pursue a career as a practitioner ? It seems to me that they are few and far between. In fact, the cynic might argue that an ambitious transport planner (with eyes on a senior position in his/her organisation) would be foolish to get involved with transport modelling.

However, when assessing the potential impacts of a variety of transport interventions the only objective method that can be used is modelling. The crucial economic and environmental appraisal processes rely heavily on model outputs. Similarly, the development of business cases for transport schemes (including the vital revenue forecasts) usually rely on models. To my knowledge nobody has, so far, offered a realistic alternative.

The breadth of transport modelling activity in the UK is greater than ever, from national models to inform policy making, through regional and urban multi-modal models, LUTI models, inter-urban corridor models, airport surface access models, models used to support the bids for rail franchises, freight forecasting models, micro-simulation traffic models, and pedestrian models. And this list is far from exhaustive.

In accordance with Department for Transport (DfT) requirements, models are becoming ever more data hungry and behaviourally complex. At the same time, expectations from policy makers are increasing. Unrealistic budgets and work programmes often limit the ability of transport modellers to keep their various audiences satisfied.

In short, it can be a thankless task. One might reasonably expect that transport modellers would at least be financially rewarded for their efforts, since there is little other compensation for the long hours and increasing stresses of the job.  But salaries for more ‘all-round’ transport planners and modellers are generally comparable.

Something has to give. My guess would be that we will soon find that there is a very serious shortage of people with the appropriate skills and experience. This should be no surprise, since employers have been turning a blind eye to these problems for many years.

Perhaps the Department for Transport needs to liaise with employers and the professional institutions to ensure that more recognition and respect is given to the humble transport modeller. We can but hope !

About djtplan

Independent Transport Planner
This entry was posted in Consultancy Business, Transport Modelling, Transport Planning and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Transport Modelling – Where are we headed ?

  1. Thoughtful article. I would say that this shortage is very much a reflection of the entire transport planning discipline also. Such an issue is now championed by Graham Dalton who is the Transport Planning skills champion; a matter taken up by The Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation as well as Department for Transport and Highways Agency.

  2. Luke Best says:

    Indeed a thoughtful article and extremely refreshing to read – as a senior transport modeller who grew tired enough with that combination of over-expectation and under appreciation to jump ship and start my own consultancy. I would add that a chronic lack of internal investment in research & development, as well as staff training, in a lot of larger consultancies is driving people away from modelling in the UK as a result of a feeling of a general lack of support in what is, as you say, a very complicated specialism. Added to this, one of the definite aftermath effects of the economic downturn seems to be a move towards more generalist resource pools in transport planning teams, as it is clearly easier to ensure high utilisation and profitability in someone who has not specialised and can therefore be involved in a wider variety of project elements. Certainly time for a bit of a change…

    • djtplan says:


      Thanks for your comments. I suspect that things haven’t improved much since I wrote this piece. I see, for example, that WSP have axed their land-use/transport modelling team in Cambridge. We can only hope that TPS and the chartered bodies will give our specialism some support in future.



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