Looking to the future of transport: investing to support mobility

By Dr Andy Cope,
person on bicycle talks to a pedestrian

Innovative technologies do not have a good track record in supporting inclusivity

Cycling and walking should be at the heart of future urban mobility strategy. Andy Cope, our Director of Insight, responds to the UK Government’s Future of Mobility call for evidence.

The challenges and opportunities of technologies in transport are many. The appeal of electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, shared mobility, new business models and innovation in data use is that they all offer exciting possibilities and real opportunity. But this is tempered by the risk and uncertainty of unproven solutions that they may have negative impacts:

  • Electric cars displace emissions rather than eliminating them (tailpipe to power station chimney stack).
  • The air quality emissions from combustion are reduced but the brake and tyre emissions may be increased.
  • There is emerging evidence of a ‘rebound’ effect whereby the owners of electric vehicles drive more than they otherwise would because the impacts (and costs) are perceived to be less. Ultimately, an electric car is still a car, and they impact on place and on safety in the same way as conventional cars.

Our position in a nutshell 

The UK's Government call for evidence through the Future Mobility Grand Challenge encompasses many new and exciting technologies. Sustrans’ position is that in the excitement of the possibilities of new technologies, we must not rule out the aspiration for future mobility to rely more heavily on well-established technologies. Cycling and walking should be at the heart of future urban mobility strategy.

The urban infrastructure required to enable cleaner transport, automation, data and connectivity, new modes, and elements of shared mobility and new business models require significant new infrastructure to even give them the possibility of proving effective. And the benefits of this investment are uncertain.

Autonomous and electric vehicles are still vehicles, and they still impact on the ‘pleasantness’ of urban space. Solutions that have a better impact on urban space, liveability, noise, congestion, public health, etc., should be prioritised. Walking and cycling fit the bill. Investment required in urban infrastructure to better support walking and cycling is non-trivial. But it is probably dramatically less than the investment required to, for example, make the streets legible to autonomous vehicles.

Transport deserts

Innovative technologies do not have a good track record in supporting inclusive society.

The consequences can be dramatic. For example, a mapping of the MAAS (Mobility as a Service) provision in Los Angeles clearly shows that areas where users are less wealthy, they are not served by transportation services. In a paradigm where securing and selling data about users is the primary driver for transport provision, an inevitable consequence is that wherever the data of potential users is deemed less valuable, provision is sketchy.

The areas with poor transport provision, aligning exactly with more deprived communities, have been dubbed ‘transport deserts’ by some observers.

The Government must take a strong hand in ensuring the adequacy of service provision resulting from future transport technologies. This intervention should reflect a recognition of the data harvesting imperatives of some future transport technologies, and should include adequate coverage of excluded communities (spatial and categorical). There is a high risk that adequate and equitable provision may require considerable subsidy.

The Government should ensure that subsidised development of some of these technologies mitigates against any need for future subsidy in delivery – that is to say, the Government should not subsidise development of technologies without a built in safeguard against non-inclusivity, which it will then need to pay to fix.

Privacy challenges from new technologies

We are also very concerned by the extent to which innovation in transport technologies is led by the harvesting and sale of personal data. It is our understanding that, for example, bike share schemes operate largely on the basis of a profit made from sales of personal data. It is critical that we understand how emerging technologies operate in respect of the use of personal data – not in terms of the way they use data to operate (although understanding this is also important), but in terms of the role that data use plays a role in the business model and commercial operation. 

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) regulation is helpful in providing a structure for data use, but there is still a lot of work to be done to really understand the ways that data derived from transport users may be used, both legitimately and abusively, in the future.

We agree with the top-line missions cited in the consultation – safer streets, improved access to transport, cleaner freight and liveable cities. However, there is not strong evidence that the technologies identified can help to achieve those missions as well as some other approaches. Some of the assertions presented in relation to the role of technologies in supporting these missions are very debatable. Self-driving vehicles are by no means proven to be safer to other road users, and many observers take the opposite view.

We need simpler, people-centred solutions 

Evidence is currently stronger that new technologies and business models reduce access to transport for some communities and groups; cleaner freight can be achieved by the use of, for example, cargo-bike distribution, as demonstrated in many cities in Europe. 

The assertion that technological innovation can improve safety in cities is not supported. Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster points to the heightened risks to pedestrians and cyclists of greater use of satellite navigation technology by drivers (satellite navigation devices often direct drivers down more lightly trafficked routes preferred by walkers and cyclists); the claim that parking spaces can be removed by increased use of shared mobility is largely false, and based on a model with massively heroic assumptions.

The case for future transport technologies to support positive outcomes is not well made, and there may be considerable disadvantages associated with some.

The best way to ensure that future urban transport systems support people’s wellbeing, and support flourishing, healthy communities, is to invest in transport mechanisms that can be shown to directly impact outcomes relating to these areas. There is an extremely strong case for the role that walking and cycling have across a wide range of areas. The benefits are vast and include a boost in health and wellbeing through increased physical activity, air pollution and carbon emission reduction, inclusivity, economic vitality, serenity, ambience, heritage and a number of other outcome areas.