Why people’s perceptions are key to the future of transport

During one of last winter’s cold snaps, I experienced something of a Damascene conversion. And I think it says something about the future of mobility.

So, what happened? Well, I’ve always thought I can’t work effectively from home, so I usually move heaven and earth to get into the office. But on this particular day, the freeze was so deep that even I couldn’t make it in.

I resigned myself to struggling through the day. But I was wrong. I had a series of meetings set up, and was able to attend them all from home via videoconferencing. The result: a highly productive day – completely transforming my view of home and remote working.

I recounted this story at the latest roundtable in London Transport Museum’s “Interchange” series, looking at how technology will change urban mobility. And my anecdote seemed to resonate with the other attendees. As some of them commented, many people may like owning their own cars, but show them a cheaper and more convenient alternative such as an Uber-type app which facilitates the use of shared autonomous vehicles, and they’re likely to switch.

This brings me to the key question: what will the future of travel look like? Making predictions is difficult at the best of times, but it is particularly challenging when the rate of change is rapid – as it is with technology. But I think we can get a long way by looking at the three basic determinants of travel: the why, the where, and the how.

In terms of the why?, the answer might seem obvious: to get from A to B. But what if the trip is just a means to an end – like me going to the office to get some productive work done – and there are better ways of achieving that end? We’re already seeing travel decline as more people work from home. But imagine the impact when people can take part in holographic conference calls. It could even be possible to have a beach holiday via virtual reality headsets and to take a virtual dip in the Med.

Moving onto the where?, it takes many years to build new infrastructure, but people and businesses can and do relocate quickly. In 20 years’ time there will be 7 million more people living in the UK. And as the economy rebalances towards the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, the likelihood is that many of them will be outside London. Are our transport networks configured correctly for this? Probably not.

Last – but by no means least– ‘how?’ There are at least three questions here. First, what happens when autonomous vehicles (AVs) take off? Analysis increasingly shows that trips by shared AV could be much cheaper than by conventional methods of travel, which suggests potentially huge demand shifts.  Second, how will trips be planned? I think we’ll end up with sophisticated apps that factor in time, price and so on to help you to decide very rapidly the best way of getting from A to B.  And, of course, they will have access to massively valuable information on customers. Transport infrastructure has traditionally been a natural monopoly because of the fixed costs involved in physical infrastructure. But will customer data be the new natural monopoly? Third, how will services be provided and organised? Lots of surface transport is currently financed by government. But with the public purse getting tighter, what will happen if government pulls back and the commercial reality isn’t compelling enough to attract private funds?

So what will all of this mean for the transport sector? Firstly technologies such as the internet of things, AI, big data and predictive analytics will play a massive role. They will help us decide what infrastructure and services are needed, reshape how these are delivered and influence why and where we make trips. Secondly, digitally-enabled vehicles will profoundly impact what trips we make and how – but the real impacts will only become clear in a wider social and financial context.  New funding and business models, such as road pricing will develop as trips are increasingly made by shared rather than private vehicles. We will need greater clarity on risk and rewards for private investors to fill any public financing gap that emerges. Finally cyber security and responsible data use will be crucial. Technologies like autonomous vehicles will only work if people believe they and their data are safe and secure.

While much remains uncertain, what we do know is that the future of transport will be very different from today. And not just because I might work from home a bit more than I used to.


Daniel Hanson | Director
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