What’s the future of transport?

by | 8 Apr 2022

It's easy to see what Scotland should do in transport policy and possible to guess what the long term looks like, but what lies between these?

First published by Common Weal

As ScotRail comes into public ownership, the CalMac ferry debacle trundles on, fuel prices skyrocket and the IPCC report warns us we need to accelerate decarbonisation, transport feels like it is right in the centre of the crosshairs of public policy right now. But do we have a vision?

In fact does anyone have a vision for transport anywhere? I pose the question because I’ve been looking at this for a number of years and I can find lots of analysis of what is wrong with ‘here’ and a fair bit of futuristic vision of what ‘there’ could look like – but there is a big gap between these things.

I have been looking because I’ve been using it as a kick-off for a personal project on a book I know I’ll never get time to finish. I wanted to look at four things that would definitely change in the future and try and work out what the difference between ‘good change’ and ‘bad change’ would look like, and how to avoid the bad change.

So I started with transport, because change is certain. The shift to electric vehicles will eventually have many more benefits than just decarbonisation and the rapid developments in driverless or autonomous vehicles could have seismic consequences.

It left me with a pretty clear picture of what I think will be the long-term outcome for transport, but it is a long long way from where we are. So what do we do now?

There are a few straightforward things that really ought to be self-evident. The fragmentation of public transport in Scotland is a direct result of the deregulation and privatisation frenzies of the 1980s and 1990s. Transport has been treated like not much more than a series of private businesses which the public sector must coax and subsidise into something that looks like a coherent system.

These are easy solutions – we need a consistent, end-to-end public transport system where buses meet trains and ferries meet buses. You ought to be able to turn up at any train or bus station or any ferry port and buy a single ticket to your final destination, involving multiple forms of transport if need be – and they should articulate with each other like a planned system.

Those who travel regularly should be able to get single, discounted, weekly or monthly travel tickets like London’s Oyster card. Again, if you need a bus and then a train, you shouldn’t need two tickets.

But does Scotland trust its transport to what could be a centralisation agenda given the recent CalMac performance? It is possible to create such an integrated public transport system through a carefully-managed franchise system, but those who attack CalMac should also have to address the performance of Abellio, precisely the regulated private sector model some advocate instead.

The problem is that centralised transport is almost an oxymoron and frankly neither civil servants in Edinburgh or private corporations really see Scotland’s many remoter communities as anything other than a nuisance

The problem is that centralised transport is almost an oxymoron and frankly neither civil servants in Edinburgh or private corporations really see Scotland’s many remoter communities as anything other than a nuisance. The solution might well be ‘central infrastructure, community ownership’; the system coordinated nationally, trunk roads and train tracks nationally-managed but ferries, local buses and even local railway stations owned and managed by the community they serve.

(A perpetual disclaimer – this would require that Scotland had a system of local government which represented communities not one which just manages regions.)

And of course we should be encouraging more bike use for those who are able to cycle. But this is a very local solution limited to fit and healthy people in a generally more restricted age range. We need to redesign towns and cities to be much more pedestrian-friendly so much more can be walked. The concept of the ’15-minute town’ is not ambitious enough – go and try a 15-minute walk with a family’s worth of shopping…

Cut prices, subsidise, incentivise – all of that is perfectly possible. But it is where we bump up against the big SUV in the room that the problems arise, because even a perfect version of all of the above does not even nearly meet all our transport needs. You can extrapolate outwards from the statement ‘one bus an hour which doesn’t coincide with the start or finish of my five-year-old’s gymnastic class’.

This is where I start to get a bit annoyed with some of the progressive transport debate (which is very often an urban pursuit) – I live in rural Scotland. I’ve been told ‘well you’ll just need to get there 40 minutes early, wait 40 minutes at the finish and find something to do in between’.

It’s not just rural. When the road toll proposal was a live debate in Edinburgh the least well paid person where I worked had to get two kids to after school clubs which would have involved three buses, some of which she would have needed to be on simultaneously. It is not a realistic solution.

So people will use cars, and cars compete with bikes for road real estate, and then once you’ve got one they are often just cheaper and save you much more time than using public transport options so you don’t get the critical mass on public transport. If you look at the history of urban planning you’ll see that cars quite literally push everything else out of the way.

But hold on, didn’t I just say I can see what the future should look like? Well yes, I can (in a disturbing level of detail – I think about this a lot), but I can’t see how to get there. There has been over-promising on autonomous vehicles but that doesn’t change the reality that the technological progress is enormous. They are coming.

And they are just massively more efficient than humans. Tailbacks on motorways are because humans incessantly break and then accelerate, causing waves that travel backwards down lines of traffic, magnifying until it leads to standstill. Humans have to drive far apart. We need one car that serves all our needs, solo or with family.

My guess is that it could be as little as 20 years before standing in a queue in the rain to wait for a giant mechanical device that drags 100 of you round a city at once and drops you a fair way away from where you need to get to will seem mad

My strong guess? Eventually we will ban human drivers from roads altogether as automation shows how bad we are at driving (most of the problems with driverless technology relate to dealing with the irrational actions of human drivers). And when we do few people will want to own a car.

Wherever you are you’ll pull out your smartphone (or whatever we are using by then), click an app, chose a destination and how many passengers are travelling and a car tailored to your needs will arrive right beside you within 30 seconds. If you’re going short urban routes alone the car that arrives will be a one-person pod car. If you’re going to the airport for a family holiday the car that arrives will have lots of luggage space – and so on.

All these cars will be on a single operating system, constantly talking to each other. Your car won’t ‘work out’ that the car in front is slowing down visually, it will be told it directly by the car in front. Roadsigns and markings will be removed, cars will form ‘trains’ moving fast with little distance between them. It’ll take some getting used to but we’ll move from A to B much, much quicker, much less expensively.

And therein lies my dilemma. Trains and buses are incredibly efficient at peak time but not if they’re a double decker dragging three pensioners round a city mid-morning. Fitting your life to their timetables makes perfect sense – until there is a clean, efficient, better alternative.

The short version of this is that I don’t think trains and buses are here for the long term. I think they will look as anachronistic as horses and carriages once there is an on-demand, clear, efficient and fast alternative.

I have a books-worth of explanation of how this system would work in my head, but that doesn’t really help, because it’s the ‘from here to there’ which is the problem. If we follow the current path these cars will all be owned by Google or Amazon as an effective total monopoly. You’ll get in these cars and be bombarded with loud advertising from start to finish.

A public version could be pretty utopian, but where is the courage and the vision to take this on? And when is the moment? We are not yet at the point where what I have described above can be realised and until then we need to invest wisely in the best version of the system we have. When do we move from one paradigm to the next? When do we feel comfortable enough to take the leap?

I think this is the dilemma for transport policy. My guess is that it could be as little as 20 years before standing in a queue in the rain to wait for a giant mechanical device that drags 100 of you round a city at once and drops you a fair way away from where you need to get to will seem mad.

But 20 years away is 20 years away. Would you gamble on that future now? Would you keep spending on transport infrastructure we won’t need in the future, much of which is designed to last for many decades? Would you take a punt?

Honestly, this has been rattling around my head so much for so long that I can’t see beyond it, can’t make a neutral judgement. I think this is the inevitable future (20, 30, 50 years from now driving a car by hand will seem like harvesting with a scythe). But I’ve been wrong before.

What do you think? Do I need to go and write my book before this makes proper sense? Do you think there is another way to do this? Is there an alternative hopeful transport solution I’ve not been able to find? How brave are you about taking a radical approach to transport? I honestly don’t know the solution to this one.

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