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Innovative modelling systems reveal roadmaps to cleaner, greener transport for the cities of the future.

Mapping the future

Image credit: Shutterstock

There was a moment, in 2006, when the pattern of the world changed.  We became an urbanised planet.  The majority of the world’s population now lives in towns and cities.  How we deal with this has very real implications for our quality of life.  We need a map to help us shape our ideal cities of the future.

One of these maps is being drawn in the Transport Studies Unit (TSU) in the School of Geography and the Environment.  The TSU focuses on one part of our future cities, but an important one.  The flow of people and goods around urban areas is a major factor in people’s reported standard of living.  Governments aim to deliver efficient public transport and an effective road system, whilst meeting environment goals on emissions. With predicted long-term increases in the price of oil, successfully balancing these priorities becomes even more challenging.  Unsatisfied with existing models for generating plans for transport systems with low environmental impact, Professor David Banister and Dr Robin Hickman created an innovative model.  Known as VIBAT, it has been adopted by planners in London, Oxford and Swindon, as well as internationally.

VIBAT stands for Visioning and Backcasting in Transport, and it aims to arrive at a better understanding of how transport can contribute to sustainability in cities. It has three stages. The first is to forecast the ‘business as usual’ situation for all forms of transport in the city over a given period, providing a baseline for comparison. The second is the description of the transport system 20 or 30 years in the future that will meet the reduction target (‘visioning’). The third stage is the ‘backcasting’ process, where alternative policy packages are assembled by ‘casting back’ from the envisioned future.  This gives policy makers a graphic representation of ‘if we carry on as we are’ compared with ‘the best outcome and how to get there’.

Sometimes policy needs a step change to jolt it onto a new path.  VIBAT picks out key planning moments where that step change can happen. It’s a particularly suitable because it captures situations where the problems are complex and current trends, actions, and plans are part of that problem. A scenario analysis and backcasting approach can help avoid getting stuck on outdated policy pathways, and increases flexibility and innovation in decision-making for policy makers and business. 

In the UK, the backcasting methodology has fed into policy from the Mayor of London’s office, Department of Transport and the London Plan.  Oxfordshire County Council and Swindon Borough Council have used it to develop their sustainable local transport plans.  

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School of Geography and the Environment

Transport Studies Unit