Climate Ethics in Transport Planning: A far away country of which we know little?

As a member of a professional body related to transport planning, you’ll be signed up to a Code of Professional Conduct or Ethics that regulate the actions you take as a member. These help to provide accountability and assurance to the people who commission our services and to decision-makers that we’re providing independent, robust, professional opinion.

But think across your professional career, how often have you read this sort of document, let alone had to use it for an issue that’s arisen?

When I saw the Transport Planning Society’s (TPS’s) call for bursary applications with their theme of ‘Climate Crisis - what more can Transport Planners do to address the climate emergency?', I knew this presented a great opportunity to examine an issue which had been gnawing at the back of my mind – are the actions you undertake as a transport planner helping address the climate emergency, and if not, is that ethical?

We know that transport is responsible for around one third of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, and that emissions from transport only decreased by a small fraction between 1990 and 2018, compared to significant decreases in the energy and residential sectors. We can probably all think of projects we’ve worked on that might have resulted in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Was this really ethical?

The research I undertook consisted of two stages; reviewing the existing codes of conduct for professional bodies for how they approached climate change and sustainability, and interviews with transport professionals.  

For my review of codes of conduct, I chose a diverse set of professional bodies that would represent the majority of transport planners working in the UK today.  Having reviewed them, only one (RIBA) requires professionals to “inform clients of sustainable practices suitable to their project”, with most requiring us to only “minimise and justify any adverse effect on society or on the natural environment” (TPS and the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation). Why is this? One reason might be that as transport planners, we’re frequently required to balance the competing interests of clients, commissioners and the public.

After I’d analysed the codes of conduct, I wanted to talk to a group of people inside the transport planning industry to see their understanding of climate change and the role transport planners are playing, as well as how they use codes of conduct. I was very fortunate that eight people gave up their time to talk to me and I was able to get a diverse group in terms of seniority, discipline and professional body.

My main conclusions from these interviews were:

  • Climate change is well understood by transport planners (which you’d hope!)
  • There wasn’t a consistent opinion on whether Climate Emergency declarations have fed through into practice in transport planning, but respondents from public bodies felt that some changes were beginning to happen
  • There was a significant variance between practitioners in familiarity with their code of conduct – regardless of professional body and including chartered members, but only one respondent recalls having had to use a code of practice ‘in anger’ in over 100 years combined of practice between interviewees
  • Having explicit requirements in codes of conduct to allow transport planners to elect not to work on issues which they felt raised ethical concerns would be hard to target and open to abuse

The above raise some interesting issues, which I hope justifies my decision to explore this topic – if we have codes of professional conduct should we expect that they’re only used once every 100 years that we work? If the inability of transport to decarbonise over the last three decades hasn’t spurred us into action, then what will it take?

After I completed the essay for TPS, I’ve continued to refine my work and have now added a comparison between UK and US professional bodies. I hope to be able to present all of this at the rescheduled Transport Practitioners Meeting in 2020.

Throughout this work, I’ve been reminded of an article Keith Buchan wrote in Local Transport Today in 2018 where he said about the Principles of Transport Planning “[they] are part of the process of making clients and the public alike value our professional opinion rather than seeing us as guns for hire who follow the money. Without their respect the work that we do will never be properly respected”. The first of these Principles is Integrity and the last is a Focus on People and understanding the impacts of the projects we’re involved in. As Transport Planners, we need to be able to critically step back and ask ourselves whether the advice we give relating to projects that will increase carbon emissions meet these Principles, and if not, why?

Note from Transport Planning Society:

TPS takes professional ethics very seriously and all designated TPS members are bound by the Code of Conduct  ( recently updated) and must comply with its Rules. All members should adhere to our Principles of Transport Planning. However, this very interesting research highlights the challenges of converting this into ethical behaviours in the course of our day-to-day work.  We welcome members feedback and views on this issue and will be looking to debate this topic further.



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