If transport is so important then where are the radical ideas?
Alex Burrows, Technical Director, Atkins, 17 April, 2015

Even though we all accept the fundamental role that transport plays in our lives – getting us to work or college or the shops – the debate around transport only ever seems to focus on specific projects or single issues. Examples might include the London airport expansion, high speed rail, re-regulation of buses and re-nationalisation of the railways.

Discussions of transport policy seem fixated with well-established long-running battles over the role of cars (and wars on motorists!); the length of time and amount of money it takes to fix and maintain roads and railways; as well as the ongoing push for devolution and shifting transport policy development and funding decisions to a local level.

But I would like to suggest that the various debates around transport have helped to maintain a status quo that has kept the transport sector, commuters and the public sector distracted from addressing wider issues that could be seen as too difficult to seriously address without quite radical change.
I suspect (or secretly hope) that major (technological) disruption is about to be unleashed on the transportation sector. There are a number of innovators starting to seriously influence thinking and actually progressing alternatives to the existing transportation market. This new thinking will help to move those debates on by shifting our understanding and appreciation of the role of transport, and how it is delivered, away from the existing models and into a very different world.

I recently wrote a paper, Journeys of the Future, which looks at how transport services are developing as the world is changing due to a number of significant social, economic, environmental and technological trends.

These trends are transforming our lives in a number of significant ways. Ten years ago, I didn’t have a smartphone, I did not tweet or blog, business cards had no fear of LinkedIn, there was no Uber or Airbnb, I still played CDs – there are plenty of other examples! So many aspects of our everyday lives have been transformed by technology enabling new products and services to be delivered. There have also been new delivery models, such as the sharing economy and the rise of access over ownership (think bike hire or carsharing), that are seeing new businesses and indeed new transport modes become major players.
These new players are starting to change the game for the transport sector and the opportunities are tremendous. Why do I own a car and buy a rail season ticket? When will these ways of purchasing the opportunity to travel change to something more appropriate – not just to my lifestyle, but also to support policymakers in encouraging different behaviours.

Why indeed is transport planned and delivered separately from other policy areas? If my reason to travel is for health purposes, then why are they not integrated from the outset? The transport element is supporting an ulterior policy issue (health). Given the potential for fewer missed appointments and more efficient use of resources, there are some potentially obvious solutions that the health sector could plan and deliver involving getting patients to appointments reliably by being involved in the patient’s travel.

So transport policy has the potential to be integrated into wider policy debates which could support the argument for devolution. But what are these changes happening now in terms of the planning and delivery of transport? And what could it mean for the actors involved?

The opportunities presented by technology and by social and economic trends are significant. More collaborative services and more services delivered on-demand are allowing transport to become less wedded to fixed times and places. This could support solutions to significantly enhance social inclusion by creating a much more flexible, and wider-reaching, transport network.

This could go further to connect up policy making and public service delivery in new and innovative ways. As transport connects us with our objectives of being at work, going to college or the hospital, there are opportunities to directly connect policies and funding through new ways of delivering public services. For example, using technology to create personal transport accounts that could potentially deliver subsidised travel in order to find work, get to school or ensure that more doctors’ appointments are kept. They could also be far more sophisticated than the blunt tool of long-term season tickets by instead providing a personal account-based system that supports our whole door to door journeys by whatever means possible, rather than having a pass that commits us to one way of travel every time – usually by car or train.

This future for transport is not far away. By looking at new ways of planning and delivering transport services, we could see a shift in governance and funding by default as the framework for transport is forced to evolve more quickly to keep up with a new reality. Perhaps disruption to the transport sector could deliver a whole lot more than just new ways of travelling?