At the Smarter Travel Live conference in Milton Keynes, Jesse Norman, MP and Undersecretary of State at the Department for Transport proposed three R’s to describe the future of transport: Risk, Regulation, and Research. I rather liked the idea, and was quite ready to agree with him.
However, the rest of his address applied those three R’s fairly narrowly to technological advances, and specifically the current Government’s favourite types of technological advances: vehicle technologies. Whilst it’s useful to discuss how electric vehicle and battery technology improvements might reduce air pollution risks, how de-regulation of autonomous vehicle technology could propel the UK to the front of this market, and how research into platooning lorries will save time and space on UK roads, such matters are hardly at the core of the future of transport.
Rather, as a later session roundly discussed, the future of transport is not about what, it’s about who.
There is no need to reduce the risk of air pollution if there are no people around breathing it in. So are we thinking about where the people buying these electric vehicles are? If in the countryside, it might help reduce carbon emissions, but not air pollution risk. If in the city, should we be pushing electric vehicles and space for charging points in residential areas over space for cycle lanes and parking and pedestrian-friendly public realm and play streets?
Meanwhile, de-regulating autonomous vehicle technology won’t make people buy or use autonomous vehicles if there are no regulations controlling what happens and who is responsible if such a vehicle is involved in a crash. It will be a big leap for many people to try, to trust a completely new mode of transport, to be sure it is safe and secure, especially if the most efficient and sustainable approach to such vehicles is for them to be shared.
And whilst freight is an important area of research, consumer behaviour will have at least as much influence on how much space is needed for transporting goods on the road network as any technological twist in lorry manufacture. Indeed, there is another technology that might eliminate the need for many lorries altogether – some scenarios envision people preferring to buy local goods and produce, and choosing to use 3D printing for currently mass-produced items at local depots or shops.
Thus, an understanding of consumer behaviour, travel behaviour, human behaviour, should inform all our discussions about the future of transport. How do people understand risk? How do you encourage changes in behaviour, especially when there is no frame of reference for new technologies? How can research from other disciplines like social psychology help transport planners shape the future of transport to meet complex tangles of economic, environmental and social objectives?
Whichever vision of the future is most accurate – the flying cars of 20th century science fiction or the shared, electric autonomous cars of current transport geek passion, there is a startling lack of people present in those visions. A more visionary approach to the future of transport is to imagine one where people can access the goods and services they need and participate in the activities and interactions they want by more affordable, healthy, sustainable, and equitable means than they have used in the past or present. A future where people and the places they inhabit are central, and technology, like transport itself, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.