Interview with Professor David Banister: Leading Thinker in Sustainable Transport Policy

by İTÜ | Sep 17, 2019
We had a pleasant interview with the renowned Emeritus Professor David Banister from Oxford University, Transport Studies at the School of Geography and the Environment on sustainable transportation, transportation economics, transportation behaviour and cities.

 
David Banister spoke with Eda Beyazıt Ince of ITU Faculty of Architecture after his memorable lecture in faculty’s “architalkture” lecture series. Banister is one of the most influential academics in the field of transport geography with over twenty-thousand citations and rising. He shared with us his journey of becoming a pioneer in transportation studies and his experiences in the field of transport policy both in and around Europe. Banister talked about one of his new books, Inequality in Transport, where he addresses the complex problem of transport inequality through his analysis of transport sector in Britain. In the interview, he also made valuable comments on the challenges of becoming a successful academic in our current competitive climate, sharing great insights especially for early-career researchers. 

Professor David Banister, thank you for being with us today. You’ve been in the field of transport studies for over 40 years, what have been the main theoretical and methodological achievements of transport research throughout these years?

Transport and particularly transport planning have changed remarkably. When I first started it was based on disciplinary, primarily on engineering and economics. When I was at the University of Leeds to do my PhD, the two streams were trying to get them to work together so that the economists and engineers were negotiating with each other. By that time, the role of planning hasn’t cleared yet. But soon after that the things began to change.

There were two main types of forces that were facilitating that. One was the sort of external forces what was going on around and for instance, the oil crisis where the price of few roads vary substantially, generated a lot of new ideas, a lot of new interests in terms of what was going on in transport. This was usually related to the globalization. It changed the way people think. It became more strategically about the important questions rather than the insignificant ones. Later on, climate crisis became a vital issue.

I think more recently the interest in social justice, inequality question, the pollution, the local pollution issues…etc. So, on the one side there was the external factors that were perceived to be important. On the sort of the research side, I think the main changes that are really taking place there have been the involvement of the much wider range of expertises, principally from the social sciences also people from mathematics or science based subjects. And this has enriched the nature of the types of approaches that are actually being adopted, so whereby by previously one might have thought it was rather mechanistic the way in which analysis was done and the assumptions that were made were very strong. More recently, there’s been a much more sort of a diversity. The aim was getting people from different social groups together, looking at different areas or income groups. Having said that, I'm not sure if what we have now is better but it does accept diversity and complexity in understanding problems relating to urban mobility.

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You mean practically what we have?

I think methodologically we're a lot further advanced in terms of using a wide range of different methods and techniques which previously weren’t considered, available or relevant. Also, things like data has been more easily available. I think it's moving things forward. But in many ways, there is so much inertia, the system is very static and you can understand that because people in different disciplines feel more confident about what they're doing when it relates their own. If you an engineer or an economist when you encounter with the new ideas you don’t always know how to feel about it. I think, there is negativity towards new ideas. So, in one sense lots of things going on, but in another sense, nothing has really changed. If we look at assessment methods, they are still basically in the same sort of paradigm. Trying to save some time to travel, putting values on time savings, looking at ways in which we can measure things in a very sort of rational framework rather than trying to do something that would be much more sensitive saying about trying to identify who were the losers who were the gainers from particular decision.

You mentioned we are living in a world with huge economical differences between social classes. How do you think transport sector effect this gap between the poor the rich? What are the main motivations of your new book; “Inequality and Transport”?

I was surprised from the degree of difference between economical classes. But then when I thought about it more… I could understand this but what I thought even harder was that things like government expenditure, public expenditure, subsidies were also favouring those who were already very mobile and often very affluent rather than much more clearly targeting those people who did have problems. We all need transport but we don't all need the same way of transportation. We have different requirements and over time those needs will change as we change jobs, have families, grow older... So, there's no sort of single answer for this issue but we should find a way of minimum level of mobility.

The aim is to expect someone to enjoy, to be able to participate in life fully. I mean this is basically the standard type of argument about capabilities in terms of trying to realize the opportunities that people feel that are important to them. Now, that's a very sort of individualistic type of approach and when one's thinking about planning then it's quite hard to really react to that. You need something of a sort of higher level which allows you to encompass those to get inside but you have to look at people grouped together or people living in the same sort of area, rather than looking necessarily at individuals. And then if you get the politics above that as well operates at a higher level again, more remotely I suppose.

So, I think it's really difficult trying to do that but having some sort of framework is having some sort of debate. I would say people to try and say right “Well, we accept that there are inequalities. What can we do about it? What are the key things that can be done?” And I think certainly within the city I mean the key things are investment in public transport which is available to all and the poor make heavy use of buses in particular but other forms of public transport, walking and cycling and the so-called healthy modes of transport as well. This is where the priorities should really be if we're concerned about inequalities rather than large scale projects.

So, you mean it should be affordable, healthy, inclusive and safe. Right?

I think that the planning level is bandied around and you know that they all say that we're going to do something that is healthy, inclusive and affordable. Yeah, let's do that. That's exactly the sort of things that we should be doing. But I don't think that we really have been doing and certainly recently and maybe more so we did in the past. And I think one other dimension which is one I've not looked at recently but I have concidered in the past, this is mainly out of urban areas. People believe they need to have a car to be able to get around, to do their everyday activities, to get to work…etc. And in another sense, these are the things that people do to afford having that car. So this is sometimes called ‘forced car ownership’ and what that means is they get a car often not a very new car, it's an old car, so, it may be a more polluting car, not a very efficient one. I think that this is something that people don't really realise because they think well people are getting more cars, that's basically what's happening in society, more generally but they don't really see that in turn it can actually cause problems for those some households with cars. Maybe only one or possibly two people could drive it and then you know that the children are dependent. So, we should really have alternatives of the cars that are attractive. And that is the way in which one can tackle those problems.

That’s often the case for not only in rural areas, there are obviously peripheral spaces in cities. People living in those areas might have been forced to have car actually as a form of mobility. What do you think about it?

Yes. I mean I think that's again is one area where there's a huge potential for technology and shared use of cars and things. In rural areas that tends often to happen on an informal basis. And that works quite well. So, people give lifts or if your neighbour needs something you will do something. But that's the sort of community type thing. But in the urban areas where probably the community sense is not so strong then something like Uber or something like a shared taxi or something maybe one way of getting people to be able to access shops and things or public transport network. So, I think that with an imaginative use of technology there are ways in which one can reduce the need of owning a car but to have a mechanism which gives you access to one when you might need it, which again the costs will be lower than if you had to own the car.

Do you think we should focus on technology so that maybe it doesn't lead to technological determinism, like you know being too attached to technological advancements. And also currently there's too much focus on smart cities, mobilities and everything associated with it. So what extent do you think these concepts add value to transport research and more important to our cities?

I think that question is quite difficult in the sense that things haven't happened. I mean we could do some ex-ante analysis which would be quite interesting to see what that might lead to. But it's really when things happen that you can expose when you can actually sort of experience it more and be sort of coherent in what the impacts could have been. Underlying it all, I mean I've got nothing against, you know technology, it has a huge potential. But the two questions I think are, does technology solve the problem that we're actually looking at or does it really allow us to do what we actually are doing already? Maybe more efficiently, but it doesn't tackle the problem. And I think that the second question is that it always seems to be quite an attractive option that in effect technology solves our problems as it has in the past. So, it takes our eye off the ball and it means that we aren't really looking at the problem’s source. We're trying to look at ways in a sense perhaps mitigating it but basically trying to be able to do the same, but differently. To do the same amount of travelling but maybe with a different type of vehicle or something like that. But it's not asking us to address the real problems which are: “How can we reduce resources substantially? How can we reduce emissions substantially? How can we make different forms of transport accessible to poor people and how can we make that affordable?”

So in a sense it's diversionary but it is attractive because people see it as being something which is new, different and there's a lot of optimism at the moment in terms of all the different technologies from the autonomous vehicles, even the sort of the old technologies like the electric vehicle and looking at mobility as a service, looking at different apps and all sorts of things that should actually help. But really they're not, there's no sort of overall picture as to how they're actually going to fit into a big picture.

In one sense many of them seem to be encouraging. People do rather than thinking about what the consequences of that might be. So, I'm a little bit sort of cautious and again there are issues that relate to transition. What we're trying to seek in the cities in terms: Do we want an automated city or not? Issues relating to responsibilities and morals and all sorts of things, the legal issues that will come out eventually but these already need to be part of the debate now. So, I said earlier that we were talking about new disciplines coming in. I think more new disciplines, robotics and more, well computer science has already been there, legal people, maybe philosophers more of those need to be engaged with the debates that are actually happening at the current time. If the people tend to work in transport often tend to be quiet sort of pragmatic, quite clear in what they are trying to do but some of these issues require a whole new range of skills that perhaps we don't have at the moment. So, I only hope that the promise that technology may have, is actually realised. But, like many other things there's a lot of hype and it may not lead to any real change in what we're actually doing but may delay the actions that we have to take to address the issues of climate, social justice, fairness and use of affordability.

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Actually, you've also mentioned that partially this technology is changing. We mean all these applications and everything else people are using right now might increase the need for travelling. This was something that you mentioned in your earlier studies. It was about 10 years ago in the sustainability mobility paradigm - one of the principles was to reduce the need for travel. Where are we now 10 years after putting forth this paradigm? Are we on the right path?

Well, I think, I mean I talked quite a lot of people recently about this and in Stockholm there was one occasion I was talking to some of the people who have been introducing the congestion charge and I've also been in Oslo talking to people, they're going to close the central area off to all traffic. Hopefully, this year is a target to do that. So they're very optimistic and what they said was it would take so long to sort of get the argument through actually get something done. So, they were saying that they really like the ideas but the difficulty is it doesn't tell us how to implement, how to realize them. I believe every situation would be different to require a different approach. But so, I do see some good signs in terms of people actually looking at ways of reducing need to travel. But on the other side, you know one of the great ideas at that time was that by use of Internet and remote shopping services would reduce the numbers of shopping trips and the numbers of you know maybe even social trips and other sorts of things. But that hasn't taken place and probably I don't know whether the internet has increased that certainly initially when you got deliveries to your home when you order something online. Now it's a much more sophisticated system so the vans that deliver are full all the time when they start. So, it's much more efficient. They're delivering to 100 different addresses or something like that rather than five or ten different addresses. So, that's good. But there seems to be so many what I call ‘white vans on the road’. You know this is a phenomenon that has really increased over the time. So, it might reduce my need to travel or your need to travel but the delivery man is doing a lot more work. And so, I think probably it hasn't reduced the need to travel. I think the most important one from the planning side is trying to join up land use planning with transport planning. The distances have been increasing rather than decreasing and that's been happening certainly in the last 10 years where shops have dispersed. The city center has higher vacancy rates than it's ever had and part of that is because a lot of shopping has gone out of town locations which are mainly accessible by car and not by any other forms of transport. So, okey people might buy more, they may do it once a week rather than two or three times a week but I don't know whether that's right or wrong but the city center is suffering from that. So, the patterns of activities have changed. Schools, health services, jobs people may be travelling further to jobs than they were. So in a sense, ten years later we may be worse off. So, I failed.

At the conference in ITU Taskisla Campus, we were talking that you have published 26 books and over 200 papers and also more than that maybe with monographs and other reports. What would you suggest to young academicians, how should they pursue their goals within this increasingly challenging and competitive academic world?

It is difficult. I mean I've been really fortunate because I've worked in mainly, whatever you said 40 odd years, in two of the world's great research institutions University College London and Oxford University. So, I've been really privileged in the sense that the people around me have been great, colleagues have been great. So it’s really sort of catches you are discussing, debating issues. I think that has really made my life a lot easier. Yes, I have enjoyed doing, and I'm not so sure that if I was starting now I would have the same enthusiasm but I think when I started everything was clearer, easier and transparent but less bureaucratic tough.

Teaching and research were two clearly identified parts of the job and being an admin was the small part but that part has actually grown. So, I think the advice is I don't know three or fourfold; but first rule is to work in good places. For instance, places that have great colleagues I don't mean they have to be the top universities but in which has a clear focus on research and ethos. That is easier joining that sort of place than trying to do research work in a location that isn't R&D oriented, that is not engaged.

Secondly, I think that these days, although I've argued most of my academic life for reducing the need to travel because networking is crucially important. These days we're way behind the time where you would have a solitary researcher working like on their own, having great ideas. Today it's collaborative. The problems are complex, you need different skills, different ways of looking at problems and so you need to be working with other people either within your own institution or more widely or elsewhere. And that means I think certainly being receptive to new ideas. I believe, over time it has been remarkable that the numbers of interesting people that you've come across and talk about their ideas or how they have looked at a similar sort of problem and then you have a debate and discussion about that. And third, fourth or whatever we are at would be, I think it is the encouragement of people to come into research through sort of Masters and PhDs. And PhDs are just so important in terms of bringing new ideas, new way of thinking. Young people into academic work and I always say that the greatest pleasure one gets is to see one of your students graduate as a PhD. That's far more important to me than seeing a paper being published or something like that because that's where the future is. I think on papers, on books as well. I publish too much [laughs]. So I don't know how you do unpublished. It is that because and I say that, because I really think the world and the research are expanding on planning, transport & cities is also expanding. So there's too much work going on and the question is the quality of the work and the quantity is fine. I've published 50 or 20 really good papers over my lifetime and in my case maybe three good books.

What motivates you?

I think, I really enjoy writing. I know a lot of other people who find that quite problematic. I always write on my own language and that again is easier for me than somebody trying to write in English unless they are native. So, I'm privileged to be able to do that. But I think again we talked about diversity in terms of people and backgrounds, ideas and interests. I think there's that diversity in researchers. Some researchers are really good and people that are really interesting to work with but they're probably not going to publish very much and you should find a way of actually encouraging them or working with them to publish something with them if that's important for that, for their career. But I think it's really important identifying where the good people can actually encourage them. I think you know there are so many important problems now and it's really being able to maintain good people into research and that's where the future is.

You have been to Istanbul about three or four times for conferences and some other gatherings. How do you define future challenges and potentials of Istanbul?

Well. I mean. So, my visits have been spread over probably 30 years or maybe even a little bit longer. I don't know that Istanbul's probably twice as the size now as it was 30 years ago. And lots of good things that happened. I mean there's a lot more public transport; trams, metro and other rail systems. And obviously, most recently with the new bridge, new airport and everything like that… So, there's been huge investments in that sort of infrastructure and there's been investment in the road infrastructure.

It was interesting when we were talking about the future plans. It is the beginning to join up the thinking across different sort of ministries. I think that is essential that somehow there has to be. I suppose you know taking a London as an example, a strong mayor as somebody who feels that he/she can do something that is bringing together all the different forms. I mean today we even saw a cycle hire place or one of these docking bikes, you know. But then there isn’t the infrastructure as yet for that sort of thing.

There's the Bosphorus which is an enormous asset that is used extensively for ferries and things but it might actually become a sort of water highway in the sense to have a much greater apparent you know, much greater use. I mean looking at sort of things like the housing that has improved particularly, in sort of housing in new areas and things. And it properly comes back to the thinking that you know what sort of city we see... Istanbul.

It's a mega city now and it's likely to be well, if you say it will be, there's no doubt it is probably the biggest city in Europe. And if it is in Asia, it's still a really big city. And it's one of that's sort of working its way up the list of bigger cities and that will probably happen, go on happening because of inward migration and the jobs being here and that sort of thing and that creates the sort of real problems for public transport which must be able to respond to that. But also, I think that people will increasingly be concerned over the air quality issues relating to road safety and issues being able to allow kids to travel on their own or with you know on public transport and have that sort of confidence about the transport system that will allow people to get around easily and also safely in a sort of healthy sort of atmosphere. At the end of the day, I think that whether in Istanbul, London or somewhere, one has to control the car, vans and deliveries and all sort of ways in which part of that might be through technology. Different users of different spaces within the city, parking, good governance, all those sorts of issues that are needed. So, if you asked me that question 30 years ago I may have said much roughly the same thing. And if we look at it now yes, it's probably even more important. And if I will come back in 30 years time then again I mean there would be huge changes. But the question is whether those will be in the right direction.

So finally, I think to tackle that would be maybe at the local level but is for the different groups the transport, the planning, the environmental groups, the NGO’s, the finance people to all get together to try and sort of work out themselves where the sort of options actually are. At the same time to have discussions in different areas as questioning what can be done more locally to try and improve the quality of the local environment. So probably top down but also bottom up that sort of approach is to engage different players as they were different actors so that there is an understanding and support for what is actually being done. In many cases, it's not what needs to be done in a sense, it is how can we actually implement it. I think what Rob Hickman and myself have always called is “implementation gap”. This is in the sense we know what we want to do, we know where we are. But we don't know how to get from one place to another. And I think that is the real problem we are facing. That’s a gloomy finish, isn’t it?

Actually, it is not a gloomy finish, I think there are huge possibilities in here.

What kind of possibilities do you mean?

I mean yes and also the universities need to be involved in that discussion, debate because they don’t have any particular interest so that they can look at issues for the ways of trying to solve them. So, you know if one of the problems is seemed to be air pollution or something you have and then go to the universities and say, ‘Look we would like to half a level to the air pollution in the next 10 years, what are the options?’ and begin, that is a conversation that you can begin to and researches can inform you on that. There’s a debate over how we can implement or how we can move in that direction.

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And that’s where the vision comes from, right? Like in terms of you know maybe any mayor may have a vision but making collaborations with universities and researchers brings in some sort of [comprehensive] vision for the future.

I think it is about having a larger vision. I mean many mayors will have ideas about it because they want to make a lasting sort of impact as being the mayor in terms of projects. But it is an essence trying to do something that is really going to have a legacy, that is going to be perhaps not so a headline like a new bridge but it’s going to be ‘this is the mayor that produced clean air in Istanbul’. And for me that would be a far greater achievement, maybe tougher but a far greater achievement than some sort of construction project and most of them are actually sort of moving towards you know.

Okay, well! Thank you so much David. And we would like to thank also on behalf of Istanbul Technical University for this interview.

Pleasure. Thank you!

About Professor David Banister

David Banister is Emeritus Professor of Transport Studies at the School of Geography and the Environment (SoGE) and the Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford. He was the Director of the Transport Studies Unit from 2006 until 2015, and during 2009–2010 he was also the Acting Director of the Environmental Change Institute in School of Geography. He was a Research Fellow at the Warren Centre in the University of Sydney (2001–2002) on the “Sustainable Transport for a Sustainable City” Project and was Visiting VSB Professor at the Tinbergen Institute in Amsterdam (1994–1997) and Visiting Professor at the University of Bodenkultur in Vienna in 2007. He was the first Benelux BIVEC-GIBET Transport Chair (2012–2013). His three latest books are The Imperatives of Sustainable Development: Needs, Justice, Limits with Erling Holden, Kristin Linnerud, Valeria Jana Schwanitz and August Wierling (Routledge, 2017); Handbook on Transport and Development with Rob Hickman, Moshe Givoni and David Bonilla (Edward Elgar, 2015), Transport, Climate Change and the City with Rob Hickman (Routledge, 2014).