What do we want from future mobility? Ask the end users

18th Oct 2023

Taking a people-centred approach to understanding and addressing the changes in transport mobility is crucial for success, argues Toby Thornton, Technical Director at WSP

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Words by Toby Thornton

A lot of my work is around understanding the key changes in transport mobility. Part of that is sharing best practice internally and with industry. 

A recent focus has been around taking a people-centred approach to understanding the change in transport mobility.

We’re currently trying to understand mobility as part of a wider system. In our industry, there are lots of experts in many different fields of expertise, each with their own perspectives on the future. However, we're often not always well connected with different people or information available across the system. That perspective is the first starting point. 

An evidential approach

We also need to take a more evidential approach, particularly working in transport and mobility. There's a lot of hypotheses and hype around new trends, but you can apply an evidential approach to understanding the changing landscape. We do that through something called signals, trends and trajectories. Every change can be an early signal, the first sign of a new change, which might be a new technology or a societal change. Trends emerge from trials, or public and private sector investment. Trajectories are where new phenomena – such as e-mobility and EV charging infrastructure, or the trend for working from home – are clearly becoming established.

When considering an evidential approach, we often don't think about the customer, so signals, trends and trajectories is a way to look at new technology or change and communicate that in an evidential approach. 

A lack of data is not what’s holding us back from delivering better outcomes: it's the lack of a focus on the end user. Even speaking to end users on a particular project doesn't happen often enough. We're part of a seven-year research programme as part of a consortium for the UK's National Centre for Accessible Transport: the first year of the research programme is only about understanding and working with disability advocates and people that can truly empathise and describe what the pain points are in industry. Only after that does the programme go on to think about what the solutions might be. That type of approach is what's missing.

Ask the end users

The way transport assessments are undertaken is an opportunity for change, with the shift towards ‘decide and provide’ approaches. There's still a lack of industry guidance on what that actually means, so we've developed a user-centric approach that tries to fill that evidence gap by speaking to representative end users at a development. In the last few decades, designing schemes has been not grounded in the types of people that live there, but just looking at what's been done before at similar types of developments.

You can reach a representation of future users through more quantitative social research, going beyond the use of personas and segmenting the type of population that might live in different types of housing tenure. If you balance that with more focused consultation or focus groups, you have a better chance of understanding what the local community needs.

Toby Thornton was in conversation with Craig Thomas

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