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Cyclists commuting to work in London

Planning for the unknowable Paul Hammond and Glenn Lyons

Don’t get carried away with transport technology. Planning for future mobility needs to envisage the society we want to live in, and then find the right mix of physical transport, land use planning and digital connectivity to enable that – with plenty of room for change, write Paul Hammond and Glenn Lyons.

In 1949 when an early state of the art computer weighed 30t, the magazine ‘Popular Mechanics’ suggested that computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1.5t. This quote is 68 years old – not much different in timespan to the 60-year appraisal period in which – with apparent authority – we examine the expected future return on investing in the transport system. Today, the MacBook weighs less than 1kg.

In 1998 the UK Labour Government published the first transport white paper for a generation. In its follow-up 10-year plan for investment it noted: The likely effects of increasing internet use on transport and work patterns are still uncertain, but potentially profound. In 1998 less than 10% of UK households had access to the Internet. The Google domain name had only been registered for a year and the availability of Microsoft Outlook as part of Microsoft Office was only a year old; eBay had not been launched in the UK; and Wikipedia, Skype, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter did not exist. Having a mobile phone was not yet the norm – let alone having a smartphone with mobile Internet. Fast forward to present day and such things have become features of many people’s everyday lives.

What’s the relevance to future mobility?

Travel demand derives from a need or desire to transport people, goods and services, to create opportunities at different locations. Physical mobility is a means of gaining access and the private car has been king in this through the motor age. However, we are now in a world where digital connectivity has rapidly matured and continues to do so. Our transport systems are under pressure to provide more access for growing populations in a world that appears ever more in a hurry. It seems untenable that future connectivity needs in society can be fulfilled by transport systems alone, to the extent that they have in the past.

Transport technologies

Nevertheless, our physical transport systems will continue to play a highly important part in future fulfilment of access needs. What then of developments in transport technologies and services?

There is now momentum surrounding the electrification of the car fleet in several countries. It can be expected that vehicles will become more connected and, in turn, that there will be more information available to drivers that supports both safe and efficient driving. What is much less clear is how far and how fast we will move into a world of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

There are pundits that will suggest that this world is rapidly approaching. Yet beyond technological and legal issues to solve (concerning both vehicles and infrastructure) there are matters of price, consumer demand, market penetration and behavioural response to contend with. In technological terms, Volvo has made impressive headway with its ‘Drive Me’ autonomous driving project and is now engaging with everyday drivers to pilot vehicles in Sweden from December 2017. Volvo’s focus is on Level 4 autonomy whereby the vehicle is capable of self-driving in certain road conditions and with a choice on the part of the human driver as to whether control is passed to the vehicle. Level 4 means the need to learn to drive and be physically capable do not go away. A renaissance in rail travel is in part attributable to people’s desire to use time on the move productively. But over half of car passengers experience nausea, so travel sickness may remain an obstacle to the heralded productive time use in AVs.

We do not yet know what the future has in store regarding what technological possibility might offer in relation to automobility.

Old wine in new bottles?

Invention is not the same as innovation. The former is what is made possible, the latter is whether, how and to what extent the invention is taken up and applied.

New future-facing terms are now in use: ‘Intelligent mobility’ and ‘Mobility as a service’. They seem to have been embraced with remarkable speed. Yet not long ago the transport sector concerned itself with ‘intelligent transport systems’ and ‘advanced traveller information systems’. We are continuing a journey of development in which improved data collection and processing yield feeds of information into services for transport system operators and users. This is indeed an important journey but it is one of evolution rather than revolution.

Will technology save us?

We can be at risk of being seduced by the siren sound of technology. What may be feasible for future mobility is not necessarily the same as what is desirable. The latter is more value laden and different stakeholders, from policymakers to shareholders to consumers, will have their own interpretations. Regardless of technology, if stewardship of the future is highly valued then the measure of effective mobility should be its ability to shape and support the sort of society we want – economically prosperous but also socially desirable and environmentally sustainable.

More attention on clarifying the end we seek enables us to remember that motorised mobility is not the only way of connecting society. Land use allows connectivity through proximity, if we choose to create it. And there is a mature telecommunications system that allows digital connectivity. Together, physical movement, proximity and digital connectivity form a ‘triple access system’. This should be the focus of attention when addressing future mobility.

Deep uncertainty

A changing world is unavoidable. But most transport planning tools have been designed for ‘the world as we have known it’. They rely on empirically understood cause-effect relationships. Such tools are not so well equipped for what may be a period where ‘regime transition’ is taking place – from the motor age to its present collision with the digital age. We are facing deep and steep uncertainty. Deep uncertainty reflects that while the future is always uncertain, it is now more so than it has been for some time. Steep reflects the multiple and interrelated dimensions of that uncertainty – social, technological, economic, environmental and political drivers of change.

Demographic change

Consider just one strand of uncertainty through a demographic lens. A baby born today in the UK has a one in three chance of living to 100. While people are living longer and spending more years in good health they are also spending slightly more years in ill health. It’s possible that living longer, healthier and more happily can come from choosing to continue to work in later life. There is considerable diversity and uncertainty in where older people will live, how they will live, whether and how they will work and what demands they will in turn place upon the transport system.

In many countries, an increasing number of young aren’t bothering to acquire a driving licence. Factors at play include uncertain income, urbanisation and digitalisation. Trip rates have been declining. Several countries have experienced an unprecedented 10-year period of near zero growth in total car traffic. The term ‘peak car’ expresses current uncertainty over the future of car use – while much attention is currently focused upon a driverless future for mobility there is also the prospect of a drive-less future.

Alongside driverless cars, attention should be given to carless drivers – pedestrians and cyclists – who could become more prominent in future mobility. It is likely that all these will be at play in combination.

Scenario planning

When faced with deep uncertainty, the approach to examining future demand must change. The UK’s Department for Transport and governments elsewhere in the world recognise that the modelling and forecasting approach of decades past is no longer sufficient. Scenario planning exposes and embraces uncertainty. It is a method used by the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation’s (CIHT) Futures project which examined over 200 transport professionals’ views on uncertainty around trends in car travel, up to the year 2042. Collectively, they considered a 53% reduction more likely than a 35% increase. Clearly, the transport profession is alive to the deep uncertainty ahead, and prepared to contemplate radical change.

Transport analysts and their analysis

CIHT Futures also asked transport professionals for their views on policymaking – present and future. Right now, they feel ‘professionally impotent’, in an industry dominated by vested interests, hidebound by compliance with procedures and standards, risk averse and guided by precedent, and that lacks the skills to confront the uncertainties ahead. They’re accountable to the dogma of regime compliance instead of responsible for stewardship of the future through regime testing, they said.

Uncertainty is problematic if an approach of ‘predict and provide’ is maintained. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A ‘decide and provide’ approach invites the profession to adopt the ‘triple access system’, working out what type of society we want the forms of connectivity to best support that.

People adapt remarkably well to change. How we shape our future mobility systems will in turn shape demand.

The approach calls for responsible innovation. One of the challenges with mobility is that it is a consumption behaviour. Private sector providers of mobility services and their shareholders understandably have a vested interest in more rather than less mobility, unless less can be offset by higher unit price. There is a responsibility to create a framework for innovation that ensures encourages change and delivers real benefits for society and business, the economy and the environment.

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