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The future of transport is happening now

By Dr Andy Cope,
Cyclists on Quietway Route 1 between South Bermondsey Station and Millwall FC

Quietway Route 1 between South Bermondsey Station and Millwall FC

As urban transport systems are embracing smart tech, aren’t we overlooking the potential of simpler, more familiar solutions to move people around? Dr Andy Cope reflects on this year’s Autonomy and Urban Mobility Summit in Paris.

There are moments of radical change, new technology arrives and suddenly the status quo crumbles. Transport and the way we travel is experiencing just such a moment. We need to make sure this future works for everyone, and creates the healthy streets and city we so desperately need.

Every day we read about progress in electrification, autonomous vehicles, and mobility as a service (MaaS). Unmanned ‘delivery bots’ roam our city streets, developers talk about advances with drone deliveries and even the movement of people by drone, and Virgin has just invested in ‘hyperloop’ technology – a mobility solution that uses electric propulsion and magnetic levitation through a low-pressure tube. This is all happening.

Enormously exciting ideas are taking shape that can change transport forever. But there are also challenges.

Can future transport solutions work for everyone?

There is strong evidence of inequality stemming from the cost of and access to transport options. The current crop of future transport solutions will be expensive at first, and have the potential to create inequalities in the way people are able to travel. Some brave observers are confidently predicting the death of public transport, and that MaaS will fill the space. It is hard to comprehend such a scenario in the context of London, and even harder to understand how we can design inclusivity in to it. 

Then there are huge questions around liabilities and responsibilities. Around the world city authorities are nervous. New mobility ‘solutions’ are turning up on their streets, and authorities don’t know how to respond. What governance arrangements are needed; what infrastructure requirements are there; what are the liability implications?

We can reasonably anticipate that conflicts will arise between the interests of the technology promoters, those interested to defray the responsibility and costs of maintenance of public space, together with those technologically-savvy parts of society, and on the other hand, city authorities that are concerned to retain ownership of their space, and those parts of community and society that are more concerned with sharing space.

Simpler solutions at our doorstep

There are also huge challenges around congestion, air quality, and public health. Fleet electrification and autonomous vehicles are still metal boxes and the developing approach of MaaS is dependent upon its constituent parts. Throw in energy supply and demand dynamics, regulation, resilience and land ownership and we can see the risk of a chaotic landscape emerging.

So, the extent to which these new technologies actually deal with the existing and future challenges of personal mobility and accessibility remain unclear.

But, of course, we do have transport solutions that can tackle congestion, air quality, public health and enhance social inclusion - walking and cycling. London is beginning to feel the benefit of a shift to these modes, with two in three journeys being made by foot, cycle or public transport.

We welcome innovation in transport but we are not seduced by it. This is why Sustrans fully supports the Mayor’s plans to make walking and cycling the primary means of access in the city and will continue to act as a critical friend to the technological advances that are transforming the future of transport.

Read our response to the expanded London Ultra Low Emission Zone consultation