Is rush hour here for transport degrees?

November 29, 2002

Suzanne Stevenson seeks an alternative route out of transport gridlock.

John Polak is intrigued by the tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions that influence how, when and why we embark on journeys.

"I am fascinated by the choices that people make - how they organise their time, how they choose their journey times or which airport to fly from. It is these little decisions that affect transport and lead to the surges and peaks that produce rush hours. In order to deal with the macro phenomenon of transport you have to understand what lies beneath at micro level," says the head of London University's Centre for Transport Studies.

Passenger behaviour is one of myriad topics covered by the CTS - one of the leading interdisciplinary transport research and teaching centres in Europe, based at Imperial College London and University College London. The two institutions, which have more than 30 years' experience in the field, run an Intercollegiate MSc course in transport as well as short courses for transport staff to brush up their skills and a research programme of transport-related topics. Imperial also heads a seven-university consortium that runs the National Masters Training Package in Transport (NMTPT).

The CTS has been instrumental in dealing with the shortage of transport planners. Polak says the government fully recognises the extent of the shortage and welcomes its support of the national Transport Planning Skills Initiative. But he adds that although the NMTPT was awarded the UK's biggest single grant for a masters course from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, there is "considerable concern" over what will happen when this money runs out. The £1.7 million grant provides bursaries for 30 masters students a year until 2003-04.

Polak also believes more needs to be done to raise the profile of transport planning at school level "so that people are exposed to it as a career option".

The skills shortage is particularly acute in London, where the transport industry struggles to attract high-calibre recruits to what is essentially a low-profile profession, a situation that is exacerbated by the capital's expensive living costs.

The extent of the problem prompted Transport for London to approach the CTS and, in conjunction with Westminster University, they developed the London Transport Skill Initiative. TfL identifies specific topics for masters modules, which will be incorporated into the centre's main MSc programme, and funds TfL and London borough employees studying part time for a masters. About half of the 50 students on the centre's masters in transport course are funded by TfL.

Although many are from traditional engineering backgrounds, the course intake reflects the changing face of transport planning, which now embraces the need for management-type skills such as report writing and public consultation.

The last major increase in the number of transport planners was in the 1960s and 1970s and Polak says it is vital that people become aware of the diverse skills now needed to help boost numbers in the profession. "Our students come from a range of backgrounds, and although they all need some level of mathematical competence, we are seeing an increasing number of entrants with non-technical degrees such as geography and languages," he says.

The latter are more likely to be involved in the "soft side" of transport planning, Polak says, since they are better equipped for dealing with the consultation process and policy delivery.

Polak himself took the traditional route into the field, studying mathematics as his first degree before going on to complete a masters in transportation and traffic engineering at the University of Birmingham.

During a career spanning more than 20 years and focusing mainly on travel behaviour, he spent seven years at the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University, before moving to Imperial College in 1995. Three years later he was appointed head of the CTS.

He says he was initially drawn to transport because it allowed him to use his mathematical background to solve practical problems. But as his career developed, his interest has turned more to "how people interact with infrastructure".

Although the CTS was not formally established until 1991, Imperial College has a history in the field dating back to the 1930s when the focus was on railway and highway engineering. Polak singles out the role played by the late Sir Colin Buchanan, who arrived at Imperial College in 1964 and became its first chair of transport.

"He brought a town planner's perspective to engineering and an engineer's perspective to town planning, combining these two vantage points in a way that few people had done before," he says.

The centre's "Traffic in Tomorrow's Towns" conference, held last week, was largely a tribute to Sir Colin, notably his influential 1963 book Traffic in Towns .

The CTS has six permanent staff and 30 research staff and doctoral students. It runs about 50 research projects at any one time, focusing on a wide range of topics from air space congestion to the impact of transport policies on social exclusion. It is also involved in a collaborative project to develop sophisticated technology to monitor emissions from vehicles. The system is even capable of assessing the quality of air inside vehicles. The research has many applications beyond the purely environmental and will provide valuable information on driver behaviour and fuel consumption that will benefit transport planners.

The centre also advises on policy issues. For example, Polak is advising TfL on the introduction of congestion charges for the capital. Although he is reluctant to comment on the issue because of his advisory role, he believes such high-profile, controversial issues will help rather than harm transport planning by pushing it further up the policy agenda and attracting more publicity.

"Transport planning suffers from a problem of no image rather than a bad one," he says.

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