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Insights Transportation planning with sustainability in mind

As part of our #PeopleDriveResults campaign, this week we have caught up with Jonathan Spear, Transport Policy and Strategy Advisor based in Dubai, UAE.

image of Jonathan in front of an electric car in Dubai

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a transport planner with 27 years’ professional experience with Atkins. I am also a Chartered Transport Planning Professional and Chair of the Dubai Group of the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT).  I lead or advise studies on transport policy, strategy development, as well as implementation through governance and regulatory arrangements.

I’ve spent about half my working life based in the UK, followed by international experience in the Middle East, Africa, China and South East Asia.

I am currently working on several land use master planning, active travel, micromobility and rail planning projects in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

I’m increasingly interested in disruptive transport technologies and service concepts, such as connected and autonomous vehicles, new transit systems and digital highways. I advise clients on how to imagine the future of transportation in coming decades, the opportunities which lie ahead and what risks we need to mitigate and manage. 

In your opinion, what is the best way for society to reduce the carbon and other emissions caused by road transportation?

We hear a lot about the coming revolution in Electric Vehicles (EVs) and how the phasing out of the Internal Combustion Engine, which has been the dominant road technology for over a century, will deliver net zero carbon emissions in the roads sector.

I think EVs, as well as other new energy sources such as hydrogen, will certainly be important and we will need sustainable charging infrastructure, resilient supply chains and other initiatives to support the shift over the next decade or so. However, we need a broader approach if we are truly to get to net zero sooner rather than later. Other measures will be needed, such as encouraging greater use of public transport, getting more people to walk or cycle for local journeys, and encouraging closer integration of transport and land use so as to reduce the need to travel. Changing travel attitudes and behaviors will be just as important, if not more so, as technology solutions.

What other technological advancements do you see happening now that you think are changing the transport sector?

There is currently a lot of focus on concepts such as self-driving cars, e-scooters, new transit modes like Hyperloop, and moving goods and people at low altitudes through Urban Air Mobility. We can expect huge advances in these technologies in the coming two decades, as well as the data, digital processing, management systems, cybersecurity and regulations which will underpin them and allow adoption at scale.

But it’s the combination of these technologies with the shared economy which is the exciting part. In future, we will be far less likely to own a vehicle; rather we will have an online subscription to buy different shared mobility options, a bit like Netflix, and it will be our mobile phones rather than our car keys which will give us access to how we connect with people, places and things.

It’s less than 20 years since the invention of smartphones that changed everything and connected computer hardware with online connectivity and services on-demand. Just imagine how much transformation we can expect by 2050 and how we may experience transport services differently.

What is the coolest project you’ve worked on in this sector and why.

Atkins has given me so many opportunities across the world over the years, with so many talented people, I’m spoilt for choice. But if I had to pick one project; I would select supporting the World Bank in developing the Malaysia National Transport Strategy (MyNTS). The project was technically complex and challenging, but also involved the chance to think strategically about how the country’s transport networks would develop over the next 20 years and the enabling steps to get there.

Over one year, we undertook several trips to Malaysia, visiting locations ranging from the metropolitan buzz of Kuala Lumpur to the tropical rainforests of Sarawak, the white sand beaches of Kota Kinabalu and the temples and shophouses of Penang, and a lot of airports, ports, toll roads, railway stations and public transport interchanges along the way. Before transport planning, I did a geography degree, so it was an amazing experience, to see and plan the future transport infrastructure and services for a whole country.

Just for fun… Imagine it’s 100 years from now. How do you see humans traveling around?

Who says we will actually travel, or at least travel as much? The pandemic has demonstrated that we can work from home and do transactions online rather than needing to actually move around as much. I expect a lot of this to stick and as communication technology advances, we will increasingly balance physical mobility with digital connectivity using what some people call Triple Access Planning.

But that said, when we do need to travel, I hope it is via a truly decarbonized and zero impact transport system, whether that means roads, railways, hyperloops, airplanes or boats. The challenge of climate change is too pressing and vital for the future of our planet, for this not to be the top priority for the coming century.

Tell us one fact about yourself that might surprise people

I once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the tallest mountain in Africa. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it taught me that with a clear goal, strong preparation, good technique, and an unshakeable belief in ultimate success, you can do anything you set your ambitions on.