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A mixed future for transport as society becomes more connected Glenn Lyons

Transport planners must embrace changing social attitudes and adopt new professional practices in the face of electrification and automation, argues Mott MacDonald professor of future mobility Glenn Lyons.

Some of us are connected – to work or social networks – from the moment we wake up. Through ubiquitous ICT there is a sense of seamlessness in life these days, and transport systems are starting to catch up. Transport is moving from the simple task of getting people from A to B to something more complex. It’s increasingly about connectivity. Looking at how people use their time while travelling debunks the idea that we have activities on one hand, and travel on the other, because the two have been brought together.

I’ve been referred to as a transport sociologist but once was a civil engineer. Travel demand derives from people’s lifestyles, goals and activities. Transport planners need to understand society, people’s social practices. It’s about placing transport in its social context.

Now that many countries have announced a future ban on the sale of petrol or diesel cars, society is primed for a technological breakthrough: the move from internal combustion to electric vehicles. We’re still at the very early stages of that transition, but motor manufacturers are geared up for it.

Potentially a burning issue is how EVs and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are going to fit into the existing infrastructure. With EVs, I can reflect on my own experience, living near a sleepy market town where charging points are emerging within the car parking infrastructure. They’re retrofitted and unobtrusive and one can easily imagine that there will be an ongoing permeation of charging infrastructure into the built environment over time as people’s engagement with the EV agenda increases. The transport industry is already talking about contactless charging, and charging on the move.

A much bigger question is around AVs. All the motor manufacturers are chasing automation — they can’t afford not to. But there are many questions to be asked about how far and how fast we are to be swept into an AV future. Some pundits predict urban and interurban infrastructures will be dominated by AVs in the near future.

But it’s likely we are still some decades away from AVs being transformative in their penetration into the fleet. If we’re talking about Level 4 autonomy — fully autonomous in some but not all circumstances – you will still have a steering wheel and vehicles which are humanly controlled at some point in the system. If this is the case, a radical transformation of infrastructure won’t be practical.

Of course, if we’re moving to fully autonomous (Level 5) vehicles then infrastructure can be rethought. AVs offer the prospect of empowering significant parts of the population, currently unserved by conventional private vehicles: teenagers with no driving licence and those (young or old) with mobility impairments.

In urban areas changes to the way people travel and connect are happening without EVs and AVs. On a normal day in London, it’s remarkable how many bikes pass by. It makes you realise that comparatively low-tech solutions can have big impacts. Meanwhile, in Cornwall or Devon reliance on individualised car-based transport exists and may endure.

Different models of connectivity are to be expected and embraced, rather than resisted. And that includes connectivity through our devices, which offer an accompaniment to or substitute for physical mobility.

With changing social and travel behaviours, professional attitudes and practice will need to change too. It’s going to be an evolution, rather than a revolution, just as those cyclists passing my favourite coffee shops will gradually increase in frequency and numbers over time.

In 10 or 15 years, we’ll look back and see this as an important era in the transport profession. Right now, transport planners are hidebound by precedent and compliance with rules. But increasingly, providing connectivity will involve multidisciplinary, cross-professional working. Future mobility will be just one system within a system of systems.

Part of me is excited by technological advance and the use of big data in transport and telecommunications systems. But, there’s a risk that we get seduced by the siren call of technology and my caution is ‘beware of the hype’.

Many years ago, I was seconded to the DfT to help deliver an IT project called Transport Direct which became a world-first door-to-door, multimodal journey planner. That was all about data and turning data into information. However, the remarkable achievement was less to do with building a web service and much more to do with unlocking the availability of data across multiple organisations through collaboration and formal agreements. The groundwork was laid then for what is now being called smart mobility or mobility as a service.

The goal of smart mobility? Technological sophistication is just an enabler, not an end in itself. Smart mobility’s goals should be to connect people in a way that’s affordable, effective, attractive and sustainable.

For further views from Glenn Lyons about the future of mobility please watch the video here.

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