The world around us is constantly changing and as we move through our lives, our needs change; what does not change is our fundamental need to be mobile – to get to the places we want to go, to see those that we want to see and to do the things we want or need to do, writes Dr Lorraine D'Arcy.

Traditionally we lived in villages. Urban and rural villages or homesteads close to villages. Our mobility needs were simple, as almost all were met within walking distance. Over time, facilitating increasingly available motorised transport reshaped our communities.

Transport modelling, geometric design and material science

Dr Lorraine D’Arcy, lecturer, TU Dublin’s School of Civil and Structural Engineering.

Advancements in transport modelling, geometric design and material science played important roles in getting people from place to place faster, in more comfort and more safely. However, there were also unintended consequences from our design practices.

Cars can get us to most places we need to go throughout our week. Nevertheless, we do not have infinite space within our villages, towns and cities to continuously expand our roads and streets to fit these cars.

Traditional demand responsive designs served us well, until space ran out. A consequence of the precedence given to private motor vehicles over all other modes was that many people were and are living and working in places that require them to own a car to access basic services. And often more than one car per household.

This also requires fuel, contributing to worsening air quality and climate change. Those that chose to take public transport, walk or cycle find themselves at the mercy of a design legacy that has left them vulnerable and underserved.

Transport poverty cycle

Some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Dublin are in the suburbs where residents spend a greater percentage of their income on fuel than their more affluent counterparts, putting them in a transport poverty cycle.

As humans, we have a physiological need to move. Physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide and in Ireland it is estimated that 14 per cent of all-cause premature mortality is associated with physical inactivity.

We also have a psychological need to meet other people. Loneliness, borne from social isolation compounded by how our villages, towns and cities have evolved, also carries a significant burden of disease and mortality.

In 2017, the World Health Organisation estimated that more than 1,500 deaths in Ireland were directly attributable to air pollution.

In 2018, 146 people died on our roads. There was more than one suicide per day. Consideration for these human factors has been almost invisible in the traditional trip demand forecasting approach to transport planning.

Paradigm shift

What is the solution? Civil engineers design for civil society; as society evolves, so must the profession. There has been a paradigm shift in how transportation problems are defined and solutions evaluated.

Transportation has become a truly interdisciplinary topic. The introduction of the Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets is one example of how we have changed our design approaches. However, more change is required in this country, and at a greater pace.

There is a need for more evidence based decision-making. Robust monitoring and evaluation of transportation investments that look far beyond time-saving for privately owned vehicles as a key metric are required.

Sustainable transport carries a high burden of proof for investment. This is understandable as people fear change. However, without a designated transport research funding stream in Ireland it can be difficult to produce the required evidence when it is called for.

Transportation professionals have the potential to be change agents for the health of our population, environment and economy.

In the multidisciplinary MSc in Transport and Mobility in the College of Engineering and the Built Environment at TU Dublin we place particular emphasis on understanding the complexities behind decision making in transportation.

Determinants of modal choice

We examine user behaviours, including the determinants of modal choice and decisions made that affect the safety of others. We also look at designer behaviours, what influences or dictates the decisions that engineers, planners and urban designers make in their designs and how can we work together more productively to create better environments.

We also look at what influences policy and political decision making when it comes to transport; and how we can advocate for change so that we design and retrofit healthier, cleaner and more sustainably liveable communities and cities.

Author: Dr Lorraine D’Arcy lectures in TU Dublin’s School of Civil and Structural Engineering where she addresses mobility issues such as road safety and demand management by introducing behaviour science and environmental psychology to engineers so that they will consider determinants of health related behaviours in their design practice. She also undertakes multidisciplinary research investigating the influence of urban and transport design on mobility, sociology, public health and the environment. She is co-chair of the MSc in Transport and Mobility.