Transported to the future
The world of transport is changing. Ideas abound over what the future will look like, from autonomous vehicles to new rapid transit systems taking over city centres. The private sector is, for the most part, at the forefront of these developments and governments across the world are increasingly turning to private partners to help them improve services and unblock gridlocked transport systems.
As cities become increasingly populated, new methods of transporting people around them will become more and more necessary.
So it is perhaps no surprise that the UK government has started to think in earnest about this particular problem, with the Department for Transport and Highways England issuing a series of initiatives over the last week.
First, there was the announcement that the government would be moving ahead with advanced trials of self-driving vehicles. Whatever your views on autonomous vehicles, it cannot be denied that the technology is developing at pace and at least being prepared for their arrival probably makes sense.
There are plenty of views around when autonomous vehicles might become the norm on British streets – from five years to 50 – but as the technology develops it will certainly have an impact on the way people travel, thus potentially the sorts of infrastructure that is required.
It is good, therefore, to see Highways England begin to acknowledge this fact, launching a £20m competition aimed at projects that can “revolutionise roads”. This competition is inviting “ground-breaking entries which will help develop digital roads – connected vehicles and infrastructure, design and construction that reduces cost and improves safety, better and more predictable journey times – and to improve air quality”.
Changing the way roads are designed and developed is again something that will need to be considered as technology plays an increasingly important role in the way people move around the country.
It’s important, of course, not to get too wrapped up in the excitement of ‘the new’. After all, around a decade ago people were hailing the potential of technology to result in far more people working from home, thus bringing an end to the commute. As anyone who has to travel into central London will attest, this has not materialised and the transport infrastructure that is currently in place continues to creak under the weight of ever higher passenger numbers.
With this in mind, the call for evidence on the potential of rapid transit in major cities in the UK is a good example of how the problems of today still need to be tackled regardless of what the future might bring.
While some might suggest the ‘imminent’ arrival of autonomous vehicles will end the need for mass transit, the truth is that there will always be a need to move large groups of people quickly and efficiently around major conurbations. Light rail options may not be new, but they probably do the job better than a fleet of autonomous vehicles that would simply gum up major arterial routes.
What is clear, though, is that whatever the future looks like, it will require innovative partnerships with the private sector. In this context, the recent government decision to scrap PF2 and push ahead with the A303 and Lower Thames Crossing projects without a partnering approach may look odd. But it may also free up the private sector to focus on innovation, more than simply boring tunnels – and being blamed when those tunnels hit problems.