Institute for Transport Studies (ITS)

A Brief History of ITS

The early years 1966-1977

The Centre for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds was formed in 1966 as a joint initiative of the Department of Civil Engineering and the School of Economic Studies, with financial support for academic posts from Shell International and from the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund. Coleman O’Flaherty was appointed to a chair of Transport Engineering in 1966 and Ken Gwilliam to a chair in Transport Economics in 1967; two new lectureships were also established in the following two years. In addition, a number of staff in the two departments were designated as associate lecturers in the Centre.

The early years saw the creation of the MSc in Transport Engineering and the MA in Transport Economics and research projects in low cost highway construction materials and the economic impact study of the M62 Motorway. Physically and institutionally, the Centre remained within the parent departments. During its first five years the Centre grew gradually, seeking to gain recognition whilst reconciling its separate identity with the continuing interests of the parent departments.

The first major breakthrough came in the early seventies. In 1971 In the Science and Engineering Research Council invited bids for the establishment of four "centres of excellence" in transport. Together with Alan Wilson, who had joined the University as Professor of Urban and Regional Geography, Professors O'Flaherty and Gwilliam prepared a bid for the largest of these centres, in Transport Planning. The bid was successful and funded about twenty research posts for five years. The bid involved the transformation of the 'Centre' into a new 'Institute for Transport Studies' located in premises at 34-36 University Road from autumn 1971, the name and location remaining ever since. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of the Institute were developed in those early years. First, it was unashamedly inter-disciplinary at a time when that was not fashionable. Apart from the disciplinary collaboration in the research effort, elements from the other disciplines were introduced in both MA and MSc degrees. Peter Hills, who was appointed as the first Assistant Director of Research in 1972, contributed greatly to this ecumenical spirit. Second, although the Directorship of the Institute was held by one of the two professors, the variety of interests involved necessitated a collaborative management structure at a very early stage. Third, as a basis for gaining recognition it was necessary to encourage, liberalize and attempt to reward true academic initiative. At a time when the number of tenured posts was limited, rewarding was not always easy. But a sign of the quality of the academic effort is that more than a dozen of the staff and students in those early years became professors.

At the end of this period, Coleman O'Flaherty left to take up a national advisory role in Australia, and Peter Hills became Professor of Transport Engineering at the of Newcastle University. The appointments of Tony May and Howard Kirby in their respective positions signalled the start of a second phase.

Expanding the research base 1977-1989

The ITS 'centre of excellence' thrived and did so more successfully than the others established at the same time. Nevertheless, the SERC programme grant was a narrow base which, while generating excellent research, had not been commensurately rewarded in terms of University financed established posts. This was a particular concern because Research Council grants could only be held by established members of staff. The basis of ITS finance thus needed to be widened and strengthened at the conclusion of the five year program. This was achieved in a number of ways, particularly under the leadership of Howard Kirby.

First, and most important, ITS continued to win substantial funding from the Research Councils on a project by project basis. Success in these circumstances was only possible because the quality of the existing research staff meant that a shared model of Project Director ( established staff) and Project Manager ( senior research staff) could be successfully developed, Moreover, the encouragement to research staff to publish in their own names rather than jointly with grant-holders allowed credit to go where it was deserved. Under these constrained circumstances researchers such as Huw Williams and Roger Mackett were able to develop international reputations in their own right. The eventual penalty for ITS, of course, was the loss to other universities of some of its best researchers.

Second, new research sponsors were found in government agencies. Local government reform proposals and national transport sector reform proposals brought both local authorities (particularly West Yorkshire) and central government (particularly in the first major national value of time study) as clients for ITS. The link with West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council was particularly valuable, and included a joint lectureship, held by Peter Bonsall, which enabled the research needs of local government to be funded by research councils. Several contracts were also obtained from the Transport Research Laboratory, which then acted as the government’s principal centre for transport research.

Third, national transport operators (particularly British Rail and the National Bus Company) became major research sponsors. The rail connection was particularly productive both in bringing Chris Nash back to the Institute where he had taken his PhD, and in forming the basis for a research programme which continued with the various rail bodies, regulatory and operating, after rail privatisation. The early work on international productivity comparisons, still widely quoted as a model, was followed by a broad range of market analysis and reform assessment. British Rail funded both a lectureship and research posts. A project on cross-subsidy in the bus industry for NBC led to the well-known Leeds rebuttal of the Government's case for bus deregulation – not an entirely popular move!

Fourth, the research basis was used for commercial development in consulting. The most notable achievement here was in the development and application of Dirck Van Vliet's SATURN suite, internationally recognised as a world-leading equilibrium traffic assignment model. But there were many others and a number of ITS staff such as Pilo Willumsen and Hugh Gunn eventually went on to lead national and international consulting firms.

The development was not only in research. This period saw the growth of a substantial programme of post experience training, particularly for rail managers and local government officials, as well as a broadening of the international basis of postgraduate training. ITS was also involved in the development of a national management training centre for Indian Railways, and British Council-funded training initiatives in Thailand and Indonesia.

Stability and reputation 1989-2004

By the late 1980s ITS had matured to be a major research and postgraduate teaching unit in its own right, with a critical mass staff of and students. However, the umbilical cord to the Business School and Civil Engineering remained. Full independence came as a result of the University’s move to create devolved budgets and independent resource centres. The then Director, Tony May, proposed that ITS become a resource centre in its own right, despite being atypically dependent on external income. This independence secured, and enabled the Institute to support its growing staff base from a mix of government and external funding.

Government funding for the Institute was further enhanced as a result of the decision in 1992 to enter ITS as an independent, inter-disciplinary, unit in the Research Assessment Exercise. The Institute triumphed with top scores of 5, 5* and 5* in 1992, 1996 and 2001, each of which led to substantial increases in research funding and help cement a world-class reputation.

Another key signal of maturity was the coming of age of a number of staff who had grown up with the ITS model and had prospered within it. The new generation of Professors comprised Chris Nash, Peter Mackie, Oliver Carsten, Mark Wardman, Peter Bonsall and David Watling while Margaret Bell and Joyce Dargay were external appointments subsequently promoted to Chairs at Leeds. With the departure of Ken Gwilliam to Erasmus University Rotterdam in 1989, and Tony May’s appointment as Head of Civil Engineering in 1992 and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research in 1996, new directors were needed, and Chris Nash, Peter Mackie, Oliver Carsten and Mark Wardman each served as Director.

The sharp distinction between academic staff with permanent contracts and research staff with fixed term contracts had never suited an operation of ITS' style and the Institute moved in the 1990s to the use of rolling contracts based on forward work programme projections. Subsequently, in 2003, it pressed the University to establish undated contracts for all staff with over five years' service, thus removing any contractual distinction between academic and research staff. These developments were recognised as national examples of good practice by a House of Commons inquiry into higher education, and in the award of Investors in People status in 2004. Meanwhile the quality of the Institute's research management had been recognised by the award of ISO 9001 accreditation – a first for an academic department in the UK.

Contributing to international excellence 1971 – 2010

Throughout its history, ITS has contributed significantly to the education of leading transport planning people around the globe, across government and industry. Prominent and influential alumni are too numerous to mention, although the longstanding tradition of retaining and developing ITS graduates means that many remain close to home, including Professor Mark Wardman, the current Director of ITS.

February 2010

With particular thanks to Ken Gwilliam, Tony May, Peter Mackie, Oliver Carsten for their assistance in preparing this historical narrative.