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WSP Transport Team Associate Emma Hughes forges change

WSP Transport Team Associate Emma Hughes forges change

 September 07, 2022

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In today’s society, active transportation such as walking and cycling has become an important part of urban planning. It offers effective strategies with far-reaching social, environmental and transportation benefits.

Funding for active travel schemes during the pandemic saw many local authorities across the UK reviewing how to make walking and cycling a safer, more attractive, more sustainable option for residents.

Emma Hughes, an Associate in WSP's Transport Team, has worked with a local authority in Greater Manchester as they look to change the way we access and experience our towns and cities.

Encouraging active travel schemes

"From my experience, recently working on Greater Manchester Mayor’s Challenge Fund Walking and Cycling schemes, it’s clear that there is no perfect theoretical scheme design. Successful schemes are a response to an intimate understanding of a location: the competing demands for space, the current and future needs of all the different stakeholders. You can’t view the scheme in isolation. Design guidance, particularly Local Transport Note (LTN) 1/20, gives us tools we can use to develop schemes, but a successful scheme needs real buy-in from stakeholders," says Emma. "As well as engaging with residents and businesses it’s vital to work with wider teams within local authorities such as neighbourhood and town centre management, parking, maintenance and greenspace teams to understand what may or may not work. We also find out about other developments that are planned to explore how we can make our schemes integrate. That not only future-proofs the design; it’s also a better use of funds,"

Introducing active travel networks

"For many residents, cars represent ease. However, the best use of highway space can be a divisive topic and bolder schemes like those that remove traffic lanes for cycling or block off roads to stop cars from getting through. It tends to generate negative headlines when there are local challengers. Often the best approach for a local authority looking to reshape people’s assumptions is to start small as the first step on a longer-term plan. To be pragmatic and balanced, introduce modest measures which prove the case and let people see the benefits. Those initial schemes help persuade local residents, businesses and visitors and give authorities the confidence to grow their active travel network," explains Emma.

"The other main obstacle is simply the availability of space. There are so many competing demands for highway space; from private and commercial vehicles to taxi ranks and bus stops. We know this from other schemes that we’re working in Stockport with their Regeneration Team to develop walking and cycling schemes which provide sustainable access to brownfield sites whilst at the same time enhancing the wider cycle network."

Active travel is highly beneficial

When asked about linking active travel with regeneration, many people often see it as simply a sustainability initiative.

"Active travel is often seen as just a green issue. Of course, there is huge potential to reduce congestion and emissions by getting people to walk and cycle more but the benefits of active travel can go much further," comments Emma.

"Firstly, there are obvious health benefits to individuals. Then there’s regeneration; it has real power to increase the footfall in local and town centres, which is crucial as local economies rebuild from the disruption of the pandemic. Our experience is that spaces less dominated by cars become places where people really want to spend time. This was shown during Covid when lots of people got out and explored more of their local areas, and there was a real desire to reclaim street space for more than cars. Our weather here in the north-west may not be the best for café culture, but that experience of socialising outside bars and restaurants is a positive legacy which is continuing. What started as a business imperative during the pandemic is now a cultural demand," adds Emma.

"Interestingly, active travel also impacts people’s perception of safety. Streets which have more people using them tend to feel safer and in turn, this can encourage more people to feel comfortable to give walking or cycling a try."

Communication is key

"Beyond technical skills, I’d say it is being an honest, open communicator. You must open channels to all stakeholders, not just those supportive of a scheme and you need to be direct. People deserve clarity on any compromises and why they may be needed. Being open with opponents, showing how a scheme has evolved to reflect their concerns - goes a long way to reconciling opinions," says Emma.

"Like a good focus group moderator, you need to listen to everyone’s perspective, not just the views of active lobby groups or dominant voices on social media. Always listening, always following up – and doing so in good faith – delivers schemes of the greatest value to the largest number of residents." 

Keeping people informed

"Absolutely. I work on schemes right the way through from inception through to construction and it’s important to maintain positive relationships through each stage. Delivering any scheme involves disruption and if we exasperate people as we build our schemes then they’ll be set against it before they’ve even had the chance to see how it might help them and their neighbourhood. Keeping people informed about when change is about to take place is essential so that we can work together to address any issues.  It helps that we have colleagues from a transport planning background who understand and can explain the rationale and detail of the schemes but using public friendly language," explains Emma.

"Delivering a scheme effectively is vital to my clients, not just to the legacy of that project but also helps to demonstrate an ability to deliver which helps to secure future funding."

Changing how people use streets

"Well of course to see active travel play a full part in increasingly sustainable travel networks and changing how people can use our streets. I’d like to see my work giving decision makers in local authorities’ real confidence in active travel. Confidence that the infrastructure they put in will be used; that there is a genuine appetite for it," continues Emma.

"The more schemes we deliver, the more data we get on usage, allowing more robust, realistic, and credible our justification for a future scheme can be. And the greater the confidence of local authorities to go further. Ongoing evaluation and monitoring are important parts of building that evidence base. Success also breeds confidence. The work WSP is doing in Wigan was secured as a result of our successful work in Stockport. So it’s a virtuous circle."

"It’s also important to share the experience with colleagues as more schemes are developed and implemented to LTN 1/20 standards and knowledge of working within the wider emerging policy context. Including the emerging Net Zero agenda and how that will shape what we deliver as an industry to be more “carbon conscious” and aligned with PAS2080, as well as the pending Department for Transport (DfT) Manuel for Streets and Quantified Carbon Reduction Guidance, drawing on the experience of colleagues at WSP who worked with DfT to develop these documents," adds Emma.

Enjoy a successful transport career at WSP 

Women like Emma at WSP work on sustainable solutions to problems affecting people, society and the planet.

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