The future, dealing with uncertainty in Transport Modelling

Author: Luis (Pilo) Willumsen, Director

Willumsen Advisory Services & Nommon-Kineo Mobility Analytics

The future will be very different from the recent past. We all know this, and we know how fast the world is changing, and how quickly things go from being the norm to being old hat.

50 years ago things changed at a certain pace, 20 years ago it changed slightly faster and now over the past 5 or even 10 years, change is happening quicker than ever – and what do you think will continue to happen? Yes, it will move even quicker, year-on-year we are seeing and will continue to see fundamental changes to the way in which we travel and live our lives.

These changes make it very difficult to plan for the future of our cities, towns and urban areas – however they will affect the success, or otherwise, of our projects. We still need to plan, make decisions and develop successful strategies - we cannot stand still, and we cannot keep going with plans fit only for ‘business as usual”.

So, how do we do this? How do we create transport models and strategies which aid us in preparing for an uncertain world that still needs better mobility?

Making friends with uncertainty

We don’t just need to know about uncertainty, we need to embrace it, make it our friend. By being aware of, understanding and keeping uncertainty close – we can reduce the risk of it coming and surprising us badly, as Uber did. Some things which we need to understand and adapt to as Transport Modelers are: Connected and Automated Vehicles, Mobility as a service (MaaS), Electric Vehicles, and the ever-changing human behavior such as increased flexible working and online shopping. All these things are currently making the transport world a very dynamic but uncertain place.

The trick is to be aware of these things, and create scenarios around different outcomes, using data from many sources. Easier said than done… but we have tools available to us which can help us in dealing with uncertainty including a refreshed TAG and DfT scenarios Still, these scenario plans are just that, scenarios. We need to make sure that our transport strategy, planning and review processes are flexible, agile and continuously updated with new data and new ideas. Which means our Transport Modelling process needs to be responsive and ongoing, changing and evolving in line with the world around us.

We also need to be very aware of the potential uncertainties, the more prepared we are, the more likely we are to be able to move effectively.

What are the consequences of not being aware of the uncertainty?

There are three basic things we can do to prepare our cities for the future:

  1. Greater future uncertainty affects decision making. We can no longer plan for a single Future that inevitably will not happen; we must prepare for a range of possibilities.

  2. In this range, we must prefer interventions that can be adapted to changing conditions; flexibility is more highly valued now than ever before.

  3. Prepare or an uncertain future. Need to detect new trends early, think and act faster when facing changing tendencies.

Ask the right question, seek better answers

Obvious questions from the past may no longer be valid; for example which project gives the best benefit cost ratio. Instead:

  • Seek Policies that work well under different futures

  • Identify Policies that work under one future but may be adapted easily and quickly to other contexts

  • Explore Projects that work well under all probable futures

  • Prefer Projects that can be adapted to different contexts at low cost and quickly

  • Develop Plans and Policies that are flexible and can be adapted to changing futures

What next?

If you need more support in planning for uncertainty in your transport models, then join Luis Willumsen on the upcoming Managing Transport Modelling for non-Modellers Training Course, 29 October in Birmingham, UK – Check out the course and register.

About the author

Luis (Pilo) Willumsen has over 35 years of experience as a consultant, transport planner and researcher with a distinguished academic career. He is an internationally recognised authority in Transport and Traffic Modelling. He has written over 50 technical papers, books and book chapters. His experience covers large transport modelling assignments, leadership of numerous traffic and revenue forecasting studies for Toll Roads, Managed Lanes, Rail, Metro, LRT and BRT projects. He is now actively developing trip matrices from mobile phone data in Europe through his company Nommon.

Check out his website for more details about Luis and his experience and for mobile phone data

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