Paper on disruptions as opportunities for transport policy change

Greg Marsden and IainDocherty have just had a paper published in the journal Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice on “Insights on disruptions as opportunities for transport policy change”.

The paper is open access and can be downloaded for free from:

Marsden, Greg, and Iain Docherty. “Insights on disruptions as opportunities for transport policy change.” Transportation research part A: policy and practice 51 (2013): 46-55. DOI: 10.1016/j.tra.2013.03.004


Policy change is characterised as being slow and incremental over long time periods. In discussing a radical shift to a low carbon economy, many researchers identify a need for a more significant and rapid change to transport policy and travel patterns. However, it is not clear what is meant by rapid policy change and what conditions might be needed to support its delivery.

Our contention in this paper is that notions of habit and stability dominate thinking about transport trends and the policy responses to them. We limit variability in our data collection and seek to design policies and transport systems that broadly support the continuation of existing practices. This framing of the policy context limits the scale of change deemed plausible and the scope of activities and actions that could be used to effect it.

This paper identifies evidence from two sources to support the contention that more radical policy change is possible. First, there is a substantial and on-going churn in household travel behaviour which, harnessed properly over the medium term, could provide the raw material for steering behaviour change. Secondly, there is a growing evidence base analysing significant events at local, regional and national level which highlight how travellers can adapt to major change to network conditions, service availability and social norms. Taken together, we contend that the population is far more adaptable to major change than the policy process currently assumes.

Disruptions and the responses to them provide a window on the range of adaptations that are possible (and, given that we can actually observe people carrying them out, could be more widely acceptable) given the current configuration of the transport system. In other words, if we conceptualise the system as one in which disruptions are commonplace, then different policy choices become tractable. Policy change itself can also be seen as a positive disruption, which could open up a raft of new opportunities to align policy implementation with the capacity for change.

However, when set against the current framing of stability and habit, disruption can also be a major political embarrassment. We conclude that rather than being inherently problematic, disruption are in fact an opportunity through which to construct a different approach to transport policy that might enable rather than frustrate significant, low carbon change.