What does the word ‘strategic’ mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary on ‘strategic’

Identifying long-term aims and interests – and working out how to achieve them. That sounds quite sensible, doesn’t it? Who could argue with that?

Yet I found myself having to look the word up, after Transport for the North – the organisation formed to ‘transform the transport system across the North of England, providing the infrastructure needed to drive economic growth’ – used it in a way that implied active travel is outside the remit of ‘strategic’ transport.

This might have just been some clumsy wording from the person running their social media account, but this attitude is reinforced not just in the imagery Transport for the North uses, but also in the reports it produces.

Planes, electric cars, trains, motorways – but not much sign of active travel here –

Spot the missing modes of transport

Or indeed here –

Container shipping, airports, motorways, trains, and people using a travelator, instead of active travel.

Equally, as Carlton Reid has spotted, Transport for the North’s new Strategic Transport Plan contains essentially no discussion of active travel, choosing instead to focus on road and rail connections between urban areas. This is despite Transport for the North’s remit covering journeys ‘within the North’, which will obviously include all those short trips that could be walked and cycled – in fact, the majority of the trips we make. 68% of all British trips are under 5 miles; 23% are under 1 mile.

From the latest National Travel Survey.

So what’s going on here?

I think it’s indicative of a belief – one that’s widespread across Britain, and not just limited to the North – that only certain forms of transport, and certain types of journeys, are worthy of investment, and serious consideration. Only motorways, roads, railways, airports and shipping can be thought of ‘strategically’ (whatever that actually means). The mundane ordinariness of walking and cycling for trips under 5 miles in length isn’t apparently something that deserves to be thought of ‘strategically’.

Closely tied to this belief is an assumption that walking and cycling will just happen by themselves, with words like ‘encourage’ and ‘promote’ featuring prominently alongside soft measures that history has shown will have very limited effect without the kind of investment, planning and engagement we conventionally apply to other ‘strategic’ modes of transport. This is why the person who composed the tweet for Transport for the North – the one that bluntly stated their focus on ‘strategic’ transport excludes walking and cycling – was evidently happy to suggest that local transport authorities ‘do a great job promoting walking and cycling’. (That ‘promote’ word again).

In reality, it’s pretty obvious to most campaigners that local authorities – with a few honourable exceptions – really do not do ‘a great job’ on walking and cycling. Quite the opposite. They’re hamstrung by a combination of limited budgets, limited political will, and limited expertise, or a combination of all three. These problems plainly won’t be solved if organisations like Transport for the North continue to treat walking and cycling as someone else’s problem.

And even if Transport for the North only want to define ‘strategic transport’ as inter-urban trips, that still doesn’t excuse a lack of consideration for walking and cycling. Not only will cycling in particular still form an important connection at either ends of journeys on public transport, as well as a way of making journeys of 5-10 miles into towns and cities (increasingly likely with the widespread prevalence of e-bikes), any new road and rail infrastructure should consider opportunities for developing walking and cycling links as part of that development. All too often new projects can impose barriers on these modes of transport; failing to think ‘strategically’ will fail to deliver important new connections for walking and cycling.

A ‘by-product’ underpass for walking and cycling in Nijmegen – a useful direct route, delivered as part of a junction upgrade

A new cycling and walking underpass under a motorway on the outskirts of Delft, providing a direct route into the city centre.

A new cycling and walking suspension bridge, spanning a large new turbo roundabout near the Hook of Holland

A cycling suspension bridge, providing a direct route across a large junction on the outskirts of the city of Zwolle

In the Netherlands, not only is cycling catered for ‘strategically’ in planning – in other words, it is taken just as seriously as other modes of transport – but it is also embedded in road and rail projects too, ensuring that cycling actually benefits from schemes that deliver other aims.

With the increasing importance of improving public health, and the importance of ensuring that – with more and more of us living in urban areas – we make journeys by the most efficient, healthy and sustainable modes of transport, a failure to think genuinely strategically about walking and cycling would be truly disastrous. We need to make those short, sub 5 mile trips as easy, as safe and as convenient as possible, by walking and cycling. That won’t happen if it these modes get ignored by the organisations with power and responsibility.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Strategic

  1. rdrf says:

    A lot of it is to do with “strategic” sounding kind of macho and (self) important.
    It also – I had, like you, to consult the dictionary – has traditionally had a military connotation.

  2. Chris says:

    The statement by Transport for the North encapsulates everything that is wrong with official views of cycling. They make it clear that they see no link between encouraging cycling and providing safe links between towns and cities. Cycling is a minority sport and we need to provide some facilities to keep them out of the way of motorists who are making important journeys between towns. When will the penny drop that Cycling is Transport?

  3. Pingback: Strategic | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  4. Matthew Parris once caustically observed that, “There exist few modern circumstances where the removal of the word ‘strategy’ from any passage containing it fails to clarify matters, usually demonstrating the argument ‘s circularity.”

    So, following Parris’s advice we could re-write Transport for the North’s sentence thus, “We fully support active travel but our remit is planning cross-region transport infrastructure which links cities, towns and biz in the north.” Which raises the question, rather than implicitly eliminating it by the insertion of the meaningless ‘strategic’ word, does active travel have a role in cross-region transport?

    I suppose that the term ‘strategic’ could apply to transport networks that stimulate economic activity or economic growth over and above that which would be expected without the strategic transport links. However, I don’t think this is how it is being used, for example by Transport for the North. And the argument needs to be made that local transport cannot serve this strategic purpose, not just assumed.

    It looks like a more colloquial meaning is being used in the TftN that claims greater importance simply by the use of the term, strategic.

    “If a decision can be described as strategically significant then it is obviously more important than decisions of a more routine nature. By extension, people making such decisions are more important that those who only offer advice or are tasked with implementation.” So writes the historian, Lawrence Freedman in his massive 700+ page book (of which I managed to read about 300 pages before losing the will to live), called Strategy: A History. He analyses what strategy means, illustrated by copious examples from theory and history, covering not just military strategy but a wide range of other areas of human endeavour including politics, business and economics.

    So while ‘strategy’ in TftN’s tweet is simply an attempt to dismiss any consideration of the role of active travel by classing it, without discussion, as subordinate and less important, we shouldn’t dismiss the concept of strategy as of no importance to us as campaigners for active travel.

    For campaigners Freedman’s chapters on ‘Strategy from Below’, encompassing subjects such as the ‘Power of Nonviolence’, ‘Black Power and White Anger’, ‘Bureaucrats, Democrats and Elites’, point to the value of having a strategic approach.

    Freedman’s main conclusion is to define strategy as setting out how to achieve an outcome that would not be seen as likely given the opening balance of forces. It doesn’t have to be implementing a grand plan but something flexible that achieves the ‘next move’.

    “Combining with others often constitutes the most strategic move,” and preventing opponents combining with others, an effective counter strategy. “Underdog strategies, in situations where the starting balance of power would predict defeat, provide the real test of creativity.”

    Freedman also says, “What fascinates me about strategy is that it is about choice and because these choices can be important the reasoning behind them is worthy of careful examination … [and can reveal] views and values that are deeply held.” Mark’s questioning of the use of the term strategic in TftN’s tweet does exactly that, revealing a sense of assumed importance attached to inter-urban travel and an implicit downgrading from strategic to tactical level of enabling sustainable active travel in intra-urban settings when both are essential components of stimulating economic activity in the ‘north’ of England.

  5. congokid says:

    By eliminating active transport from its remit, Transport for the North is deliberately choosing a *non-strategic* approach to ‘transforming the transport system across the North of England, providing the infrastructure needed to drive economic growth’. A strategic approach would be aware of and consider all the wider areas negatively impacted by otherwise short-sighted transport policies, including health, pollution, congestion, road danger, etc. In fact in doing so TftN’s proposal is about as far from ‘strategic’ as you can get.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.