What can we expect from new transport technologies?

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 13th September 2019 by David Metz.

In my new book, Driving Change: Travel in the Twenty-First Century, I assess the likely impact on travel behaviour of new transport technologies, in particular electric vehicles, digital platforms, digital navigation and autonomous vehicles.

Electric vehicles eliminate tailpipe emissions and so help improve urban air quality and mitigate global warming. Yet a change of propulsion does not change the basic characteristics of cars or buses.

Digital platforms help match supply and demand, and have made possible online shopping, which has contributed to reduced numbers of shopping trips. Digital platform apps on mobile phones, exemplified by Uber, facilitate finding a ride-hailing taxi or a rental bike, and are understandably very popular. They may tempt people away from buses, but they can also complement regular public transport by meeting the need for ‘last mile’ travel. When the night tube opened in London, the pattern of late-night Uber trips changed, from centre-to-home to suburban-station-to-home.

Digital platforms permit vehicle sharing by people travelling in the same direction. Some commentators see this as the answer to road traffic congestion, in that higher occupancy would allow travel demand to be met by fewer vehicles. However, congestion arises in locations where both population density and car ownership are high, so that there are more trips that might be made by car than the capacity of the road network permits. Some potential drivers are deterred by the prospect of unacceptable delays and make other choices – a different time, mode or destination of travel, or not to travel at all. Congestion is therefore generally self-limiting, in that if traffic builds up, delays increase and more road users are deterred. Conversely, measures to reduce traffic tend to have little impact on congestion because the initial reduction in delays then releases previously suppressed trips. So increased vehicle occupancy is unlikely to make much impact on congestion.

Digital navigation devices, such as Google Maps or Waze, offer optimum routing that takes account of congestion. They also predict journey times in advance, which is the best means we have to mitigate the impact of congestion, given that what worries people most is the uncertainty of how long a trip will take in congested traffic.

Autonomous vehicles (driverless cars) are attracting enormous interest and investment, both by established auto industry businesses and new entrant tech companies. As yet, there is very limited evidence of impact from pilot trials and simulation studies.

The main historic transport innovations have allowed faster travel and a step change in access to desired destinations and services: the railway in the nineteenth century; the car in the twentieth; the modern bicycle in its heyday before the mass market car, and motorised two-wheelers today in low-income countries. Similarly, a series of electronic and digital innovations have permitted a step change in virtual access to people and services: the telegraph; telephone; radio; television; internet; broadband; smart phone; social media. All these innovations have stimulated huge investment, rewarded by the returns from increased access.

In contrast, new transport technologies seem unlikely to lead to any significant increase in speed of travel. They will therefore not be transformational. Rather, they offer incremental improvement to the quality of journeys and possibly some cost reduction.

Public transport is benefitting from digital technologies for travel information and payment. On the railway, digitised signalling and train control permits shorter headways and increased capacity of existing track. For buses, the main constraint is the difficulty of creating segregated routes in dense urban spaces. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for public authorities to encourage technological innovation that aligns with their strategic objectives for movement and place making.

David Metz is honorary professor at the Centre for Transport Studies, University College London. Driving Change is published by Agenda Publishing. 20% discount is available with code AP2019 https://www.agendapub.com/books/78/driving-change

About the Author

This post was written by David Metz. Honorary Professor, Centre for Transport Studies, University College London