Took part in a Chatham House roundtable at the New Economics Foundation last night which, mostly ended up exploring the fault lines between a vision of the future of transport centered on moving as rapidly as possible to the vast majority of journeys being made by electric, shared and autonomous cars – and those who thought that vision was either unachievable or highly undesirable, or both.
It made me think this (or in some cases steal the thoughts of others)…
- There is a big gulf between those who see transport from a tech / venture capital perspective and those whose background is in wider urban and transport policy. Indeed they are very rarely in the same rooms together. The former look at transport from the outside and they see one vehicle dominates – the car. So that’s where the heroic engineering and renumerative opportunity lies for transforming transportation – and at a global scale. With that clear objective set then everyithing else is about cracking any problems that lie in the way to the goal of fixing the car (ie making it electric and autonomous). And given the amount of money at stake, their faith in technology and their own abilities – they are confident that all problems can, should and will be cracked. The people from a wider urban and transport policy perspective see cities and their transport network as complex systems of which the car is one element – an element which is problematic per se. So you don’t start with the car as the be all and the end all of transport policy because that clearly makes no sense. The global nature of the ambitions of the tech / venture capitalists also makes the gulf even wider as what might work on the empty straight roads of 1950s US suburbia might struggle with being the answer to the future of transport on the constricted road network of European cities with their roots in the 1500s. However is there somewhere within this zone of mutual incomprehension for a space for thinking about how tech could fit with where the reality of the transport needs of denser older major cities where space for any kind of road vehicle is becoming steadily more constrained and where there is a wider vision for healthier streets?
- Is the above a first world problem in that it would be easier to establish a whole new mobility system based on the tech / venture capitalists view that the future is about electric, shared, autonomous cars in newer, or even new, cities in developing countries – where city layout, politics and regulation could be more receptive?
- In the Eighties there was a brain drain into a deregulated financial sector which ultimately gave us the crash and the strange and frightening world we now live in. Is there now an equivalent brain drain into a tech sector which was never regulated in the first place? And are we living with the consequences of that right now from fake news, and election meddling to lack of control over our personal data and the rise of unregulated internet monopolies? If so what do we do about it? In Estonia the Government uses secure technology to hold citizen’s personal data for them in a way that makes public services easier to use and cheaper to provide. In London there’s talk of cities establishing something that sounds similar – city data trusts. Could these approaches be part of the answer? Or at least part of a more urgent debate?
- The carbon footprint of the energy sector is transforming for the better with amazing rapidity in the UK but the same is not true for transport. Will the pressure increase for this to change? At the same time (and there’s a lot of fog of war here) the shift to electric vehicles seems to be picking up pace dragging even the more reluctant elements of the automobile sector with it. Will that lead to panic by Government over loss of fuel duty revenues and could that lead them to react by seeking to slow the shift?
- One more on CAVs. One of the big emerging obstacles to full CAVs that the techies / venture capitalists will need to crack if their dream is to be realised is attitudinal. As in just because people could do something that technology allows them to do – they might not actually want to do it. So, for example, if CAVs need to be shared (given that if everyone had their own nobody would be able to move very far in them without being stuck in a traffic jam) then how do you get round the fact that if there’s one thing that people hate its being in a small space (like a lift) with strangers (even if its only for a minute). Are people really going to want to make the beloved lift experience into their day to day travel experience?
One of my main roles over the last year and a bit has been to develop a new way of collecting and representing data across the Urban Transport Group. This work has always been an important part of what we do, as comparative data allows you to put things into context, not only seeing what is happening in your own area but also how this compares with what is going on in similar places across the country (and potentially further afield).
Having easy access to high quality data is vital for making informed decisions, whatever industry you are in, and transport draws on data from a number of different areas, including population and economic changes, changes to the way people travel and also to the environment. This is why we started collecting comparative data almost ten years ago, and is also why we wanted to get more output for the effort that we were putting in.
My aim was to turn a long spreadsheet into something much more usable to more enable people to extract value from the data, encourage them to use it more often, raise the profile of the data, and increase the range of analysis that was possible.
From this, our data tool was born.
We decided that the best way to raise awareness and encourage more people to use the data available was to develop an interactive tool. This would make the data easier to access and also put it into a more friendly visual representation.
The tool takes trusted transport (and wider relevant data on populations and economies) and puts it into a more accessible format, taking it out of a spreadsheet and allowing you to instantly make visualisations.
The ability to select the variables that you are interested in and produce a visually attractive output in seconds will be a major help in allowing people to answer transport questions quickly. The fact that you can then download the visual or the data, or share it on social media means that you can also use the information for your own work.
We hope to add further developments to the data tool over the coming months, mainly the ability to represent data spatially, and also increasing the amount of data within the tool.
Change isn’t coming – it is already here. Transformative technological change (allied with social change – the transition to a sharing economy in particular) is shifting the ground beneath our feet as big city transport authorities. Three areas in particular stand out. Firstly, the explosion of data which means that citizens can be far better informed as travellers about their options but also potentially have a greater say over decisions on transport. The planners evaluating the options for new services, infrastructure and facilities will also be far better informed about the implications of different options. Secondly, new vehicle technologies will mean that vehicles are smarter, greener and better connected. There is also the potential for them to become more autonomous. Thirdly, new means of paying for access to transport alongside new business models open up the potential for Mobility as a Service – where travellers can buy packages of mobility that can be used across all modes (including bike hire, car hire and taxis).
Better informed decision making, both individually and collectively, as well as transport systems which are smarter and cleaner, offers an exciting prospect. However, there’s more to getting the best from this smart future than just letting technology rip. For example the growth in the taxi market, fuelled by new business models, is bringing benefits to consumers but at the expense of growing traffic congestion. Who will ensure that those on the wrong side of the digital divide can still get around? How can we ensure that technology plays its full role in improving air quality and tackling carbon emissions?
Much of the debate on what we call ‘smart futures’ tends to be focussed on excitement around the technology itself. However, technology should not be an end in itself. It should be about making individual journeys easier whilst also serving wider public policy goals for cities – like cleaner air, inclusive growth and urban environments that people want to visit, invest in, live in and work in.
This is where the Urban Transport Group, and its members come in, and it’s what ‘Our Vision for Smart Futures’ that we launched today is all about.
A vision that commits us to recognising the pace of change and the benefits it can bring in the way that we work and operate; making sure that change makes travel simpler and easier whilst ensuring that change does not leave behind any sector of society or community or leads to unintended consequences that damage cities as a whole (such as more traffic congestion)
I hope that this vision statement will help remind national government, Transportation Network Companies and the tech sector that to get the best from smart futures we need a broader dialogue on smart futures on transport, one in which public sector transport authorities and wider city region government is integral.
Follow this link to download a copy of ‘Our Vision for Smart Futures‘.