Institute for Transport Studies (ITS)


Recollections from a founding father - Professor Coleman A. O’Flaherty on the genesis of the Institute for Transport Studies

By Dr Hedi Maurer

As a former PhD student at the Institute for Transport Studies (ITS) it had been a long-standing wish of mine to meet the founding director of the Institute, Professor Coleman O’Flaherty. Knowing that he had retired to Tasmania, the southernmost island state of Australia, I contacted him during a visit in April 2010. I travelled to Launceston in Northern Tasmania by coach and was met by Professor O’Flaherty in the Cornwall Square Transit Lounge. Following the Tamar River he drove me out of town to a restaurant nestled in the Ninth Island vineyard. Between Tasmanian Riesling, fish cakes and rhubarb crumble Professor O’Flaherty shared with me his memories of the beginnings of ITS.

Professor Coleman A. O’Flaherty

In September 1962 Coleman O'Flaherty was appointed Lecturer in Highway and Traffic Engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds. It was a great time for a young engineer to be given this responsibility - and opportunity.

Road engineering in the university system was not a very 'respectable' subject in 1962, but it was on the cusp of great change as a result of external factors, viz. there were then about 10m vehicles in Great Britain and only a few hundred miles of motorway, the Government was committed to expanding the intercity motorway network to about 1100 miles by 1975, public transport usage was declining rapidly, and traffic congestion and accidents were ever increasing. Local Authorities were screaming for funds to build major urban roads to meet the growing traffic demand - but the Government were scared of their monetary and environmental costs, and appointed Colin Buchanan to prepare a report ("Traffic in Towns', London, HMSO,1963) on what to do.The overwhelming message was emerging that the day of the traditional engineering approach ('build roads to meet traffic demand' ) to road-making was over, and that there was a need for an interdisciplinary approach which would incorporate the skills of engineers, economists, town planners, and econometric personnel in the decision-making relative to the planning, design, development, and operation of roads.

In 1963 O'Flaherty met David Quarmby, a young lecturer in econometrics in the Department of Economics at the University, and the concept of an interdisciplinary Centre for Transport Studies emerged from their subsequent discussions. Enthusiastic 'outside' support for the concept was given by Tom Lord, the General Manager of Leeds City Transport.

Quarmby and O'Flaherty then approached their respective heads of department (Professor A Brown, Economics and Professor RH Evans, Civil Engineering - who was also Pro-Vice Chancellor) who gave their full support, and the outcome was a submission to the University Senate about late-1964 for the establishment of aninterdisciplinary Centre for Transport Studies. This proposal (which cost the University nothing) was accepted by the Senate, the Centre was formally established in 1965, and O'Flaherty was appointed its first Director; about the same time David Quarmby left the Department of Economics to take up a new job in London.

In 1964, the first PhD student in Traffic Engineering was accepted in Civil Engineering, and an application was made to the University Senate for permission to begin an MSc degree in Transportation Engineering (started in September1965). Gerry Leake was appointed Lecturer in Transport Planning (in Civil Engineering) in 1965 and Leake, Bill Houghton-Evans (Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning) and O'Flaherty taught the whole of the MSc programme for its embryo years. O'Flaherty's lecture notes for this course formed the basis for the first edition of his book ‘Highways’ (London, Arnold, 1967).

Initially, however, the Centre for Transport Studies was a 'paper tiger' in that whilst it had formal University recognition, it had no independence, no budget and a very tiny staff whose costs were paid for by their 'home' departments. So, much had to be done if the Centre and the concepts behind its establishment were to be taken seriously within the University and beyond.

In 1965, with the full backing of Professors Evans and Brown, O'Flaherty put a proposal to the University's Vice Chancellor, Sir Roger Stevens (who was also Chairman of the Humberside Planning Council) that he lend his support to an Appeal to Industry for funds to establish two chairs (in Transport Engineering and in Transport Economics) and, hopefully, a number of lectureships. Sir Roger readily agreed and the appeal was launched. Grahame Williams (Assistant Registrar) provided great administrative back-up, O'Flaherty wrote the letters, and Williams then made sure that the VC signed them.

The Appeal resulted in some £90,000 being raised from various national and local organisations. This sum, however, was only sufficient to support one professor for 6-7 years or two for about 3 years but, following strong representations, the University agreed to advertise two tenured chair appointments. The outcomes of these advertisements were O'Flaherty's appointment as Professor of Transport Engineering (December 1966) and Ken Gwilliam, a brilliant young lecturer from UEA was appointed Professor of Transport Economics (May 1967).

In 1967 Ken Gwilliam introduced the MSc Transportation Planning & Engineering students to the 'delights' of transport economics, and prepared a formal proposal for an MA in Transport Economics (started in September 1968). The Centre for Transport Studies also received a major boost when Professor Alan Wilson was later appointed head of the Department of Urban and Regional Geography and became involved in its activities.

In 1969 O'Flaherty made an application to the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund for support to establish a 3- or 4-year lectureship in Traffic Engineering, and this resulted in the first staff appointment to the Centre (but housed in Civil Engineering) in 1970 of Michael Maher, an extremely bright young PhD from Cambridge, in Operations Research. Transport Economics later received a great boost with the appointment of Peter Mackie (a young Ministry of Transport researcher) as a Lecturer in the Department of Economics.

About late-1971/early 1972, Gwilliam (Professor of Transport Economics), Wilson (Professor of Urban and Regional Geography), and O'Flaherty (Professor of Transport Engineering) made a combined submission on behalf of the interdisciplinary Centre for Transport Studies, to the Science Research Council for a research grant of £200,000. O'Flaherty well remembers the day in 1972 that the phone rang in his office and he was told that the Centre had been successful with its application; his immediate response was to say to the person on the phone "You must be joking", and then he heard this urbane voice from London reply "We never joke about money at the Science Research Council".

In 1972 a research grant of £200,000 was viewed as significant, and the University rewarded the Centre by raising its status to that of an independent Institute with its own university budget, its own building (a Victorian terrace on University Road), and its own staffing. This was a major breakthrough as the new Institute for Transport Studies was no longer dependent on its 'home' departments for its very existence and operation.With the support of the other ITS Professors, O'Flaherty was appointed by the University Council as the first Director of the Institute.

The three Professors immediately set to work in establishing the infrastructure to implement the SRC Grant commitments. A critical early step was the appointment of Peter Hills as the Assistant Director of the Institute. Hills, who had been a young member of Colin Buchanan's ‘Traffic in Towns’ research team, came from a lectureship position at Imperial College London.

In May 1974 O'Flaherty left Leeds University to become Chief Engineer at the National Capital Development Commission, Canberra and later Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Tasmania. In 1974 the Institute for Transport Studies had 19 research staff, 13 research students, 29 full-time students in the MSc course in Transport Planning & Engineering, and 10 full-time students in the MA course in Transport Economics.

The Institute was born from the vision, determination and initiating spirit of Professor O’Flaherty who knew how to establish an influential network of people around him and to mobilize the necessary financial means for such an undertaking. “Success”, O’Flaherty said, while driving me back to the Launceston coach terminal, “is a combination of intelligence, luck and opportunity”. The Institute for Transport Studies, one of the world's premier learning and research institutions in transport studies with now over 80 staff and more than 100 postgraduate students, is an iconic embodiment of O’Flaherty’s philosophy.

Dr Hedi Maurer 
NEA Transport Research and Training, The Netherlands
Email: hma(at)
May 2010