What future do we want?

Flooding after storm Dennis
Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 21st February 2020 by Claire Haigh.

We were told decades ago to expect this. Ciara, and in quick succession Dennis, have wreaked havoc and devastation to thousands of homes and livelihoods. Tragically the death toll from these extreme weather events continues to rise, and we are warned it’s not over yet. Storm Ellen is on the way.

A changing climate is one of the many factors underlining the fact that we are living through a period of unprecedented change. Transport is on the front line as the biggest emitting sector, and one of the sectors that has been most profoundly affected by some of the fundamental changes underway in our economy.

We are seeing a Cambrian explosion in technological innovations with new forms of transport constantly emerging. Customer expectations in the mobility sector are continually being redefined by experiences that once would have been unimaginable. There is scarcely a part of our economy that has not in some way been affected by the internet and the disruptive changes that have ensued.

At the same time, both current and future transport demand is being profoundly affected by a growing ageing population, increasing urban densification and major structural changes in the economy and labour market.   We are experiencing a dramatic increase in online shopping; changes to work patterns with a shift to more flexible and part time working; the rise of the ‘gig’ economy and growing automation – to list just a few of the major changes already underway.

The challenge for public transport operators is how to respond dynamically to changing demand in the most cost-effective way possible. If technological changes and innovations are not managed effectively, they could precipitate a sharp reduction in public transport use. This would have damaging impacts for the economy, and lead to a worsening of pollution and congestion and an increase in social exclusion.

As we look to the future many different scenarios are possible. The key question is what future do we want, and what do we need from our transport system to bring that future about? Crucially, what is the role of public transport? This question is brought into ever sharper focus by the growing imperative to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

A utopian or a dystopian future?

There is the very real risk that new technologies could tempt people away from public transport, walking and cycling. Studies in the US have revealed that ride hailing through platforms such as Lyft and Uber have been leading to fewer trips by public transport and increasing congestion. San Francisco observed a 50% increase in congestion between 2010 and 2016.

Mobility as a Service presents the opportunity to encourage behaviour change. The key question is will MaaS steer people to greater or lesser car use? And what will be the role of car sharing? The Government Office for Science suggests that car sharing is likely to remain niche because people prefer ownership. The DfT predicts that if car sharing fails to take off traffic could grow by 55% between 2015 and 2050.

Connected and autonomous vehicles have been touted as potentially transformational. But if and when they finally do become mainstream what impact will they have on congestion? DfT scenario modelling shows the growth in traffic forecast could increase to 71% if self-driving vehicles allow passengers to use their time more productively.

There is the risk that certain parts of the country and demographics could be left behind. Social exclusion could be worsened by digital and financial exclusion: only 44% of those over the age of 75 used internet in past 3 months; 1.3 million adults don’t have a bank account.

If public transport networks suffer there could be serious social consequences. A 10% decrease in public transport connectivity is associated with a 3.6% increase in social deprivation. Reduced use of public and active transport as a result of cheap and convenient door-to-door alternatives could further exacerbate the obesity epidemic.

Avoiding unintended consequences

Future economic growth must be decoupled from damaging social and environmental consequences. This means more investment in public transport, giving priority to people rather than cars and reducing congestion. In nose to tail traffic emissions from vehicles increase up to fourfold.

Integration of sustainable public transport with housing and land-use planning will be essential, if we are to avoid urban sprawl and worsening congestion. We also need as a priority to move to a more efficient system for freight and logistics. There is the very real risk that growing internet shopping will bring our roads to a standstill.

The transport investment decisions we make today will be critical in determining our ability to tackle the greatest of our times. Transport accounts for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions and is the only sector to have increased emissions over the last carbon budget largely as the result of rising demand for car and van travel. We need a major switch from private to public transport.

The PM’s announcement last week of £5 billion for local transport is a welcome step in the right direction. However, we will get a clear indication of how serious this Government is about encouraging greater use of public transport in next month’s budget. Fuel duty must be raised.

The most dystopian future imaginable is one where we fail to bring down global greenhouse gas emissions. Both here in the UK and around the world transport is on the front line. As hosts of COP26 later this year, we must lead by example and do everything we can to reduce emissions from transport.


About the Author

This post was written by Claire Haigh. Founder & CEO of Greener Vision & Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub. Claire was previously CEO of Greener Transport Solutions (2021-2022) and CEO of Greener Journeys (2009-2020).