Monday, 4 December 2017

The future of Transport

Will we have self driving cars or not? 'Travel in Britain in 2035' describes three plausible(ish) scenarios and only in one of them do self driving cars play a major role. They do make a big difference though. I heard about this report at 'The Future of Transport' organised by Cambridge Network. There were 6 presentations in total of which three involved driverless vehicles: one on self driving cars, one on self driving delivery drones and one on self driving mass transit vehicles. (Actually this was mostly about tunnels; the self driving bit was only incidental; driverless transit vehicles are common enough to be uninteresting, for example the London DLR). The other three presentations were the one on the future scenarios report, one on local transport plans (from the council) and last, but perhaps most interesting, one on local transport from the consumer side: Andy Williams from Astra Zenica discussing how their staff will get to and from work.



The new biomedical campus will get a new railway station. What about the rest of Cambridge?
Astra Zenica are building a new headquarters on the biomedical campus next to Addenbrookes hospital. These and thousands of other staff working on the site need to be able to get to work on time. They aren't asking for self drive vehicles - they just want fast, reliable and affordable transport.  They actually live mainly in the Greater Cambridge area - as far north as Ely and south as far as Royston or even London. Ideally they would like a transport hub at most 5 miles from home that offers a direct route to the biomedical campus.  This is such a large commuting destination it certainly does warrant express routes; a new railway station is planned. But what about all the other places in and around Cambridge where people need to get to work?

Increasing transport efficiency relies on three key technologies: digital connectivity, smart apps and driverless cars.
The 2035 scenarios report was focussed on ways to make our transport system more efficient without adding new road infrastructure. The population is growing (ONS baseline growth is 0.6% per year which means 15% more by 2035) and other things being equal this means more traffic but where can it possibly go? Their definition of more efficient included reducing demand for travel as well as making better use of the existing infrastructure, for example by fitting more cars on the road or getting more people into public transport. The diagram below shows the basic principles and some of the mechanisms. There are three key technologies: improved data connectivity to enable remote working and telepresence as well as make smart apps more useful, smart apps to optimise use of resources, and the driverless vehicles.

Key technologies that could make our transport more efficient

Driverless vehicles will make car use possible for more people.
Driverless vehicles could substantially increase demand for transport. If you don't have to drive you can do other things like sleep or work - this could make longer commutes more acceptable. However, cost is always an important factor too. The best thing (I think) about driverless vehicles is that they allow more affordable taxis - a considerable part of the cost of a taxi is the driver. This means that more people who can't drive a car because of age, cost or disability could have at least occasional access to a door to door mobility service, unlike bus services which are bus stop to stop.  This is especially useful for an ageing population needing frequent visits to the doctor. Private car ownership would still be possible and probably widespread.

Driverless vehicles could mean smaller, more frequent, responsive public transport.
Driverless vehicles could also bring substantial improvements to public transport, in particular increased frequency. One reason people prefer direct routes is because making a change often means waiting for an indefinite period in inclement weather. RDM are to run a pilot scheme with driverless vehicles after hours on the guided busway starting next year. After 8pm there are too few passengers to run the conventional service economically. However smaller (e.g. 12 seater) vehicles without drivers can still be profitable even if they run empty a significant proportion of the time. In any case empty running will be minimised with a smart app  allowing you to request a vehicle by phone when you want one. Driverless vehicles can be smaller and more frequent as well as responsive. This will make using public transport more pleasant and encourage switching to these modes. This is important because the same amount of road can handle a lot more people in buses than cars.

Ride sharing also increases efficiency, though not everyone likes it.
Without driverless vehicles you can still make taxis more efficient by ride sharing. This is the norm in some places (like Tehran, as I discovered by watching the 2015 film Taxi) and more recently it is widely supported by services such as UberPool. However it isn't hard to find passenger-from-Hell type stories about Uber Pool. I suspect a 4 seater car is below the optimum size for ride sharing if you dislike enforced intimacy with strangers. The 2035 scenario with the most reliance on ride sharing is the one with least economic growth and high travel costs, where people ride share because they can't afford not to. Smart apps is an important enabling factor.

Changes in social attitudes could also lead to reduced demand.
The third scenario from the 2035 report involves  a number of factors that reduce travel demand. Very good data connectivity supports a big shift to remote working and tele-presence but making this happen also requires shifts in social attitude. 'A small but growing minority subscribe to a ‘Live Local’ ideal – purchasing locally made goods, reducing their carbon footprint, and cultivating a rich online social life.'

A strong circular economy would mean less goods to be transported.
There is also strong regulatory support for the circular economy, with manufacturers taking responsibility for reuse, recycling or disposal of discarded products leading to a number of indirect but important effects. Firstly, manufacturers find it more profitable to trade in services rather than goods, especially for electronics and vehicles - just as we rent our phones now we will also rent tablets and cars. This in turn leads to less frequent replacements so less goods to be transported.

Remote working allows a new way of leisure travel.
The way we take our holidays is also affected by environmental concerns in this scenario. Instead of having several short breaks we are more inclined to take few longer trips, often working part time (remotely) while we are away. My neighbours did this recently: they swapped houses with a family in Austria for a few weeks. They mostly worked remotely during the days and explored the area in the evenings and weekends. They thoroughly enjoyed it.

I have only touched on some different aspects of these scenarios. The report is well worth reading.  There are nice things and not so nice things in each scenario and in practice the future will be some combination. However government support and regulation could make some of these possibilities more likely. For example if access to transport needs smart phone apps it also requires a reasonable level of mobile connectivity everywhere, or at least everywhere there is a road. That means providers such as OpenReach have to install connectivity even where it isn't economic. Driverless cars  can only optimise use of road space if they talk to each other and that needs standard communications protocols across car providers. Similarly travel apps need real time travel data which must be freely available, not proprietary or with huge licence fees inhibiting small companies getting into the market. Data privacy and security is another huge concern.

The 2035 scenarios  were focussed purely on moving people (and goods) around. The do nothing scenario will mean ever increasing congestion.  Building more roads is undesirable on grounds of cost and damage to the landscape as well as air pollution and GHG emission. Most of the proposed means to increase efficiency also have the useful side effect of reducing carbon emissions.




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