Thriving cities – making the political case

The role of local authority officers and advisors is to help politicians make the case for transportation decisions. For best outcomes, it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of the priorities and perspectives they face.

Politicians and transport planners have a lot in common. Both want to build thriving cities that improve mobility and the lives of people. But while they share these objectives, the priorities and the pressures they face are very different. You can see this clearly in the ways they might present specific plans – for example, for a low traffic neighbourhood, a road closure or a new cycleway.

As SYSTRA has discovered, understanding this difference can have a significant impact on the success of the entire project.

So what causes planners and politicians to apparently speak different languages?

Quite simply, while transport planners have a primary focus on the plan to the exclusion of almost everything else, politicians have other considerations ranging from special interest groups through to party political priorities and manifesto commitments, all of which shape their approach. If they ignore or oppose these in the short-term, they’re almost certain to face challenges. Equally, if they take a longer-term view, the benefits are less guaranteed and may be enjoyed by someone else further down the line.

To work effectively with political stakeholders requires transport planners to develop a better and more sympathetic understanding of the pressures they’re facing, and to become more adept at presenting plans in the light of them.

Speaking the language of political realities, and backing this up with evidence, can make change happen. For example, eliminating a car park needn’t mean lost revenue, it can be presented as an opportunity to repurpose the space for activities that add value and potentially even higher returns. Similarly, the voices of aspirant cyclists and walkers belong to voters just like the louder voices of disgruntled drivers. We need to find ways to engage with these diverse audiences and their voices to the table. Most of all, the message that competitive capital investment is certain to be awarded in future to places that are liberating themselves from the car, must be relayed ever more loudly. Adopting a more ‘politically savvy’ approach can pay significant dividends.

Politicians ultimately want what transport planners want. They just need a well-structured and thought through case, backed up with local evidence – since it is they who have to stand up to public and peer scrutiny. For while it’s perhaps true that few politicians are especially interested in transport, all of them are interested in votes, and in voter welfare – and if we can help them make the connection, we’ll be in a stronger place to deliver liveable communities and economic growth.

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