Historians' Books


Transport Policy: Learning Lessons from History

Colin Divall , Colin Pooley |

Most of us get out of the home most days and, even if we don’t, we rely on transport for life’s essentials. Yet, apart from moaning about the likes of broken paving slabs, rising fares, traffic jams or cyclists shooting red lights, few people get worked up about the topic in quite the way they do about, say, the NHS or schools. It’s much the same in government: although the Department for Transport (DfT) is a direct descendant of the Ministry of Transport (1919) and arguably dates back to the Board of Trade’s involvement with railways in the 1840s, it’s rarely been regarded as a top-notch appointment, with ministers all too often passing through briefly on their way ‘up’ – or sometimes ‘down’ – the political greasy pole. True, big infrastructure projects like airport expansion or high-speed rail excite popular controversy, provoke a good deal of political rhetoric and cause policy-makers plenty of headaches. But even such potentially expensive projects with planning horizons measured in decades are treated with little regard for how they (don’t) fit together – witness the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee’s recent call for the DfT to develop a 30-year strategy for transport-related infrastructure. Given this chronic failure to think holistically it’s not too surprising that until the last year or so there hasn’t been much interest around Whitehall in looking to history in order to think more deeply about how transport networks might shape the way we live in the years to come.               

Other European countries, notably the Netherlands, are much better at such ‘history learning’ and this collection explicitly aims to emulate Dutch practice by developing a ‘usable past’ for UK transport policy – an unapologetically pragmatic and utilitarian approach to history that directly addresses today’s (and tomorrow’s) challenges and imperatives. But the book is only a staging post on a much longer journey to making history an indispensable part of political and policy debate. Although the ten essays cover a wide range of issues and modes – including walking and cycling – this isn’t a handbook of ready-made ‘solutions’, more of a guide to the sort of insights that can be had when people from a wide range of professional and academic backgrounds work together in an open and (at least intermittentl) intensive way. It’s already been a long journey: the first seeds were sown in 2008, when two of us met at a conference and realized that as academics working separately in transport studies and transport history we might together produce something novel, at least in the UK context. But we also knew that right from the start we had to reach beyond universities if our conversations were to be relevant to policy: a usable past needs to be co-authored, not cooked up by academics and delivered to a surprised and quite possibly unreceptive audience. A networking grant from the AHRC helped to do that by funding three workshops (in York, Belfast and Lancaster) in 2010–11, with a final wrap-up in September 2012. Some 45 people took part in this series, drawn from an eclectic mix of backgrounds: academics from transport studies, history, geography, politics and sociology, print and broadcast journalists; local politicians; and (in either a personal or an official capacity) people from various transport industries, consultancies, consumer bodies and authorities. Our conversations also benefited greatly from the expertise of experts from the Netherlands, Australia and the USA.  

Inspired in part by our experience of Dutch practice the workshops set out to develop and test a series of five linked procedures that might be used generally to bring history to bear upon transport policy. These steps were to:  

  • establish what transport professionals, policy-makers and academics already know it would be useful to understand about the past 
  • see what answers historians can give straight away
  • ask what other known historical processes might be relevant to the present
  • agree a research agenda that will help to fill gaps in our historical knowledge
  • identify ‘product champions’ to embed this approach in the transport industries and policy as well as in teaching or CPD programmes. 

All the workshops addressed the so-called ‘soft’ factors that shape how as individuals and a society we choose to move ourselves and our things around. In particular we explored how histories of attitudes towards everyday mobility – mobility cultures – can help us to understand not only why people think and feel about transport in certain ways but also how we might be able to change hearts and minds. For example the first workshop looked at commercial cultures, in other words: how personal transport is marketed and branded. This was – and remains – particularly appropriate given government enthusiasm for mega-projects such as HS2, Crossrail and even – although perhaps ‘enthusiasm’ is not the right word here! – new runways in the South-East. The simple fact that historically new infrastructure has encouraged travel seems to have been forgotten in policy circles. So the workshop was partly about recovering lost truths and exploring ways to bring them back into wider circulation. We were also interested in exploring how a richer, more nuanced history of the relationship between marketing and ‘demand’ might suggest new policies. Travel ‘demand’ is not simply a function of an expanding economy or rising populations. It stems partly from commercial efforts to expand markets as providers and governments try to maximize returns on capital, leading to suppressed demand once capacity dries up. The history of how marketing and branding shape and respond to public opinion is thus a key to explaining why ‘demand’ for personal mobility has reached today’s levels and forms. There is a nice parallel, for instance, between efforts to fill empty Eurostar seats and the Midland Railway’s pioneering marketing in the 1870s as it struggled to get some kind of a payback on its London extension to St Pancras. What lessons might there be here for HS2?

Many factors can frustrate communication between academic historians and policy makers. These were repeatedly rehearsed during workshop discussions and are at least implicit in most of the essays in the published volume. Very often it is not that policy makers do not recognize or appreciate the role of history, and the value of an historical understanding, but that they are simply too preoccupied with more immediate and pressing concerns. This was particularly highlighted for us at the Lancaster seminar where a local Green politician who, has been centrally involved with local politics for many years, outlined the ways in which many policy objectives that he would have liked to have achieved had been frustrated by the need to focus attention on basic requirements (such as balancing the budget), and the necessity of compromise within a politically hung council. If academics are to communicate effectively with politicians and policy makers then professional historians must also recognize the everyday constraints under which most policymaking takes place.

Having thought about the problems of communication both in the workshops and during the preparation of the book, we suggest a series of (perhaps rather obvious) factors that need to be borne in mind if historical research and publication is to have any significant impact on future policy making. Firstly, historians should take responsibility for producing their evidence and ideas in a form that is both accessible and digestible. As academics we all too often have a tendency to over-complicate arguments and to surround them with caveats and qualifications. It is almost as though making an argument hard to understand is a badge of quality. In fact, this is rarely the case and whether we are communicating to policy makers, students or fellow researchers making an argument and its accompanying evidence accessible to all must be a key criterion. When communicating with policy makers it is also important that relevant historical research is published in outlets that policy makers use, rather than being hidden away in an obscure academic historical journal. As historians we have a responsibility to make our research as widely available as possible – including to policy makers. If we do not do this we cannot complain when it is ignored.

We have also found that it is important to consider what politicians and policy makers want, and sometimes to adjust expectations accordingly. Although, as academics, we may be reluctant to temper our message, if the content or mode of delivery leads to it being rapidly discarded the impact will be zero. A message more tailored to the reality of a policy making framework – and the inevitable constraints which this has – may gain much more purchase, even if the message itself has been adjusted a little. For instance, it has been suggested to us that some policy makers do not take kindly to academics proposing policy solutions on the basis of their research. One view is that it is the role of academics to provide research evidence and the role of government policy units to appraise that evidence and formulate policy. This may not always be the case but a dialogue between academics and policy makers that establishes ground rules and identifies expectations can be helpful. It also has to be recognized that almost all policy making takes place within a political framework which, to a greater or lesser extent, will have an ideological basis. There may well be some issues where research evidence and associated policy proposals from academics would be deemed so politically unacceptable that they are bound to be ignored by government policy makers. One area where such conflicts undoubtedly occur is in attempts to constrain car use. Although there may be a general agreement that reducing car use is a good policy objective, often it is viewed as too politically sensitive for really effective measures to be put in place no matter what evidence is available.

While in an ideal world we may wish to influence national policy making through the production of relevant historical evidence, in practice advances may be more easily made at a local level. Building good relations with local policy makers and planners, and focusing on issues that are clearly relevant to the local community, may be the most effective means of getting academic research (both historical and contemporary) into the policy arena. At the local level it is also likely that the less fashionable aspects of transport planning are recognized and given some prominence. For instance, at the national level most discussion of ‘sustainable’ travel focuses on cycling with walking mentioned only in passing. It is recognized that walking for short trips in urban areas is good for health and the environment, but it is not usually seen as a form of travel that has to be planned for. At the local level, it is easier to identify specific aspects of urban infrastructure that may inhibit walking – in part because the people involved may actually experience them on a daily basis – and to propose policy solutions.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in developing meaningful dialogue between historians and policy makers in the field of transport planning is the way that policy makers and politicians perceive their role in relation to history. Most planning and policy making is concerned with moving forward, with being modern, and with embracing the new. A transport policy unit or planning department that too obviously looks to the past for ideas and policies may be viewed as backward or outdated, and thus out of step with contemporary political dialogue. In communicating an historical perspective to policy makers it is thus important to stress that looking to the past is not suggesting that we should return to living conditions and travel modes that existed a century ago, but rather that some of the characteristics of former transport systems that in the twenty-first century have been lost may be worth recovering. Examples might include the reconstruction of some railway links that were lost in the 1960s (the East West rail project linking East Anglia with south central England is one current scheme that is taking shape: http://www.eastwestrail.org.uk/), or the reallocation of urban road space to give more prominence (and safety) to cyclists and pedestrians in an attempt to return to levels of cycling and pedestrian travel that were common in the mid-twentieth century (as is being done to some extent in London: https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/transport/cycling-and-walking). The fact that such schemes are happening demonstrates that careful examination of how we lived and travelled in the past can provide prompts for the development of schemes that can successfully marry some of the most positive aspects of past travel infrastructure and behaviour (good rail connectivity and high rates of walking and cycling) with technologies and construction methods that are very much of the twenty-first century.

Related Policy Papers


About Us


With long-established offices in King's College London and the University of Cambridge, H&P is an expanding Partnership currently supported by 6 Higher Education Institutes: King’s College London, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, The University of Edinburgh, University of Leeds, and The University of Sheffield.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More