Ideology can be a Motivator but it can also Blind

This article was first published in Transport Times on 20 November 2017. Selective use of data and evidence is blinding many in transport to open collaborative solutions  – not just for Brexit but transport delivery as well.

‘Brand UK’ is characterised internationally as representing a stable open trading nation, but in a fast-changing world the role of nation states is changing. Transport is perhaps the most tribal of all economic sectors with many ‘ists’ and ‘isms’ applying separately to all modes. Those of us who work in the industry understand better than most the current forces at work in the Brexit debate, so can transport expertise offer any tips to the Brexit negotiators?

Organising in tribes can have huge advantages in keeping things simple, with emotional ties to communities and places acting as strong motivators – “give me my country back”. In transport delivery over the last 20 years the community planning partnerships, smarter travel and accessibility plans have repeatedly found that niche groups like cyclists, or rail enthusiasts have greater capabilities to bind their communities than other transport groups. Linking these narrower agendas with the common good has been the great challenge, but also a recipe for successful transport delivery.

One recurring problem is that ideology usually seems to trump evidence. People make up their mind what to think and then validate, or refine, preferences by noticing evidence that confirms their perspective. For example, proponents of each mode of transport have tended to focus on the competitive benefits of that mode compared to other, such as car versus train, despite the evidence of complementarity between modes usually being a more dominant effect. For example, the evidence that rail schemes away from the most densely populated areas have tended to lead to economic growth which in turn has led to more car traffic has tended to be ignored by the rail planners in favour of simpler, but arguably less important evidence that some car drivers switch to rail. Similar problems have applied to most transport investment covering everything from health benefits of cycling to employment impacts from roads.

In a complex world where systems interact in many ways, data choice is fundamental to the way that evidence and findings are observed. The most practical uses of data have come less from attempts at objective analysis, than from carefully choosing what to measure (usually attributes of people, places and profit). By constructing successful business models around measurable goals successful delivery of desired effects can be organised. Successful business models have often related to place making goals such as the Liverpool One land use and transport developments which linked value for people, places and transport through obligations for transport operators, transport authorities and land use developers.

Business models like this are a key foundation of all good strategy. From transport policy to Brexit, successful delivery relies on building the business model around the problem. Some people call this ‘putting your money where you mouth is’. In transport, strategy is often limited to containing problems rather than delivering policy aims. Policy may seek less private car travel, whilst the strategy defined through the business incentives and transport economics instead deliver more car travel. Policy and practice say and do different things to make transport policy manageable for politicians. Similar logic applies across transport from aviation to walking, helping politicians to cope with the different perspectives within society.

Following this logic could imply that Brexit might adopt a similarly ineffective path. There could be a lot of talk, but, in the end it could be that making it look like something has happened is more achievable than any actual significant change. On the other hand, if politicians want frictionless borders with countries across the world then learning from the business models of logistics and retail company Amazon might be a good starting point. Amazon is not only one of the world biggest transport providers but has been one of the most successful organisations delivering increased global trade.

We have learned from transport that investing in people, places and connections delivers competitive, accessible, efficient systems. Similarly, for Brexit It is only when politicians start to look at how new systems might work for people, that the way forward becomes clear. Tackling the information market failure might lead people to change their views. Focusing on places might force everyone to look at themselves the way others see them. Most of all, understanding connections helps everyone to realise that nothing is free, with management of the value chain (including liabilities for taxes and charges) being perhaps the most important factor of all.

Brexit has so far been discussed more at an ideological level than at a practical level of organising it, so in this respect it is very like transport delivery. Just as we have seen how success can be achieved when transport tribes align behind strategies to connect people and places, so with Brexit, the public are most likely to align behind a practical solution. Perhaps the most important practical lessons that transport can teach the Brexit negotiators is that when dealing with opinionated tribes creating a new market place is easier than changing an existing one, but smoke and mirrors to hide the absence of any real change is even easier.


Derek Halden, Director DHC Loop Connections

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