Institute for Transport Studies (ITS)


Irvin Cohen

Country: South Africa

Name: Irvin Cohen

Company: Self-employed (various international consulting companies – UK, USA, France, Denmark)

Position: (Independent) Consulting Transport Economist and Transport Planner

ITS Course: MSc Transport Planning and Engineering 1980

I have been working as an independent consultant for the past 19 years. International assignments have been carried out both in an individual capacity and as part of multi-disciplinary, multinational teams for major British, European and North American consulting engineering and planning firms. These assignments have involved economic appraisal, evaluation and planning of roads and highways projects in countries throughout the developing world and in countries in transition, including the provision of technical assistance to client country governments and a number of international funding agencies and regional development banks/funds including the World Bank (IBRD/IDA), the European Commission, the Asian Development Bank and the African Development Bank, the latter directly at their (former) headquarters in the Ivory Coast.

My experience at ITS has totally shaped my professional working career, inculcating a strong focus and providing a stable foundation for securing virtually continuous work over more than 30 years.  The combination of economics with transport planning and engineering has been especially fortuitous in this respect. Initially, I worked for six years in urban municipalities on metropolitan-wide land use transportation studies, for which the mandatory course conducted by Dirck Van Vliet was of direct relevance.  The modelling work at ITS (using TRAMP software in 1980) was applied in a real life situation over a period of three years using the MINITRAMP modelling suite in the City Engineer’s Department in Port Elizabeth (South Africa).  The principles of travel demand forecasting and analysis also served me in good stead on various public transport related studies in the private consulting sector in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s; similarly, the principles of cost benefit analysis under the course conducted by Peter Mackie would prove the cornerstone of my subsequent work on feasibility studies in various countries around the world. 

I still remember that the very first assignment on the MSc course involved library research and it highlighted the importance of identifying the sources of one’s analysis, findings and results (for any given subject matter) together with any assumptions made.  This remains an invaluable lesson in ensuring the integrity of one’s work.

This is indeed a strange story since it was quite by convoluted chance that I found myself at ITS. I should first point out that I was born and raised in what is now Zimbabwe, but was at that time Southern Rhodesia.  After high school, I originally began studying architecture (in South Africa) but did not settle and withdrew after only a few months. I then did economics at undergraduate level back home in Rhodesia (where the only university in the country had a total student population of around 2,000 and on the economics course, there were just three students in the 3rd and final year!). 

I still hankered after something related to the architectural profession and the closest option was town planning.  For a totally illogical reason, I chose to do a two year postgraduate diploma course at Leeds Polytechnic in 1978 (now Leeds Metropolitan University).  The reason for choosing Leeds was because I had been a rabid supporter of the famous Don Revie who managed Leeds United football team (1968–1974)!   Academically, this choice was a very poor one and I realised that the Diploma would have no value at all.  However, one of the subjects in the first year was transport which was entirely new to me and which I found most interesting.  Realising that money would be totally wasted by continuing with the second year of the Diploma, I discovered that the University of Leeds ran two courses in transport, so I walked across the road one day and met with Professor Tony May in the spring of 1979.  Later that year, no doubt one of the most important letters I have ever received in my life arrived at home in Salisbury (now Harare) offering me a place on the MSc course commencing in the autumn.

I’ll just add another small reflection: during my few months on the architecture course in Johannesburg, I came across a copy of the Architectural Journal in the library which, if I recall correctly was the May 1974 issue.  One of the feature articles focused on the new buildings that had been constructed at the University of Leeds and I was mesmerised by the modern glass, steel and concrete design, merely fantasising about the remote possibility of being there in person.  And so it turned out that I was indeed able to savour every moment of walking around the university campus, the adjacent Woodhouse Moor and the streets of student houses in Headingley, soaking in the feel and atmosphere through all the pleasurable days of autumn, winter, spring, summer and even a second autumn.

I know that deadlines are now far stricter on Masters courses but back then, it was possible, after the examinations in May, to drag out the time taken to complete the dissertation.  Given that this academic year was so incredibly rewarding and my entire experience at the university so thoroughly enjoyable, I prolonged my time in Leeds for as long as I could!

It is my view that students can look forward to a richly rewarding career whether it be in the public or private sector.  Transport, as with the energy and water sectors, is a domain in which work opportunities are seemingly boundless given that national budgets are almost always limited i.e. funds are insufficient to maintain existing transport networks and the institutional (human resource) capacity to manage transport infrastructure is equally limited (especially in developing countries).  The transport sector will continue to be a prime component of economic growth and development in both developed and developing countries. My advice is to focus on subject areas that interest you, but at the same time be flexible to opportunities that may arise in other areas within the transport sector as a whole.  For example, my own career began in the public sector (in urban local authorities) where I was more than content.  Only due to the prevailing political environment in South Africa at the time, did I change my employment which then unexpectedly culminated in international development work (an arena that I originally had no idea even existed).