Linking transport, health and wellbeing

10 December 2015

Using research and evidence to assist in transport policy

CSaP brought together a group of Cambridge early-career researchers and civil servants from the Department for Transport to discuss the role of evidence and expertise in making transport policy, with a focus on how it can influence health and wellbeing.

'It's fantastic to see you all here undertaking the crucial task of bridging the gap between academia and policy.'

Dame Athene Donald kicked of the day by extoling the virtues of academic research in policy, and David Prout (Director General for HS2, DfT) then described the relationship between three essential cornerstones of policy: Politics, Deliverability, and Public Value.

"[It was a] new experience for me to network with academics, which was really useful. A really well structured day and very enjoyable."

The first panel session of the day addressed the question 'What are the health and wellbeing impacts of transport planning?'

Professor Ian Bache, from the University of Sheffield, spoke about his experience in the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, which included interviewing stakeholders about how they conceived of wellbeing. He advised attendees that while wellbeing had begun as a diffuse concept, it was increasingly understood to be central to policy making, with schemes being evaluated on how they will contribute to individual happiness and communal cohesion as well as economic growth.

Dr Clemence Cavoli spoke about her work on identifying structural and conceptual gaps in how different data sets are collected across different Government departments. She explained that current differences in data collection on the impact of transport and health policies render joined-up, cross-departmental policy making difficult, and highlighted work that her team at UCL are doing to remove this barrier.

Dr Steve Melia, from the University of the West of England described the potential difficulties in interpreting research, and stressed the importance of evaluating the claims made against the evidence provided. He gave the example of some of the positive claims which have been made about Shared Space as a road design system, which he argued had been based on too small a sample size and had not taken environmental factors fully into account.

Dr Elisabete Silva from the University of Cambridge demonstrated the opportunities for improved transport policy afforded by dynamic simulation models. Sophisticated models, driven by big data, mean that government can now implement adaptive policies that effectively link up transport, health and wellbeing policies, and advised attendees to seek out and use these models in their work.

"[I wanted to] increase my knowledge in how policy decisions are taken and the role that scientific evidence has on shaping them. This was made clear throughout the day."

The second speaker session was on 'How Policy makers make the best use of evidence in policy making'

Andrea Lee from the Department of Health spoke about the complexity of the policy making process, and the need for evidence input at all stages. She advised attendees to think about the strength of the evidence base for the different areas in which they were working, and use this to qualify the advice they supplied to policy makers.

Bruce McVean from Transport for London explained his organisation's role in improving health. He explained how putting a monetary value on health benefits using tools such as HEAT and SART help make the case when it comes to policy formation.

Victoria Robb from the Treasury talked about the wellbeing factors involved in large scale transport projects. Using Wallasea Island, a wildlife reserve built with the material from the excavations for Crossrail, as a case study of a project that had gone well, she explained how evidence must be embedded early in the process, draw on existing guidance and fit into existing frameworks, such as the Treasury's Green Book. She also stressed the importance of constructing a good narrative (e.g. giving politicians the chance to pose with wildlife!).

Dr Katie Hunter drew on her work as a public health consultant to explain the importance of reducing car use for improving health outcomes. In politically difficult areas such as this, she argued for the importance of infographics and other attractive and clear forms of communication as part of making a convincing pitch to policy makers.

"[The day was a] perfect balance between info and discussion. [The] group task [was] very valuable."

The delegates then divided into groups to address a hypothetical policy issue, in an exercise designed to give them a taster of how ministers are briefed and policy decisions taken. They were asked to evaluate three proposals and, bearing in mind transport and public health considerations, recommend one to the ‘minister’ (played by Dr Julian Huppert). Most of the teams opted for a guided busway option, which led to a lively discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of this form of infrastructure.

A final group discussion followed, covering a host of issues around evidence in transport, health and wellbeing policy, as well as broader issues around policy making and communication.

(Banner image c/o tokyoform via Flickr)