Saturday, 22 March 2014

Transport Futures



Two-hundred years ago I would, most probably, have spent my entire life on the Wirral, a small peninsular tucked in between North Wales and Liverpool. It is unlikely I would have ventured across the river Mersey, to Liverpool. It is possible, I suppose, that on occasion I might have saddled my horse, or hitched it to a cart, and made the inter-city journey to Chester, a bum-sore fifteen miles away.

This morning I set my alarm thirty-minutes earlier than usual and travelled to London. I arrived at nine. Fifteen minutes and two short tube journeys later I was at Imperial College, for a one-day symposium on Transport Futures. So is transport important? Important? Transport is life-changing and empowering, and so often taken for granted and accepted as a given of modern life. It is therefore surprising how, in Science Fiction, a literature that builds so heavily on history, we so often find public transport and logistics to be so poorly represented. Okay, so we have our space rockets and our generation starships; we have our space elevators and jet packs; we have our beam-me-up-Scotty matter transfer technology; but how often have we seen a ton of vegetables or a container-load of bottled water being dragged through the Stargate? And how do our intrepid spacefarers get themselves from their homes to the spaceport?

These are not subjects that were discussed today. That kind of extrapolation is more my goal and that of other science fiction writers, weaving narrative threads, to entertain, speculate and inform,  from the near-future ideas of academics and transport professionals like those who shared their visions with us today. We heard presentations on eleven areas of future transport, areas that are bound to touch the lives of each and every one of us in the coming years.

Eleven topics in one day is a lot to summarise here. I won’t try to do it all. There were surprises and revelations. There were concepts so futuristic as to leave this poor science fiction writer struggling to project the curve very much further, and these are concepts that are just around the corner, and there were cautionary tales, too, that hinted at dystopian clouds on the horizon; warnings that will need energy and vision if we are to avoid them.

Dr Miles Elsden is Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department for Transport. He spoke of the challenges that face public transport in the near future: Population growth, emissions and climate change, an ageing infrastructure and extremes of weather. He told a (possibly) apocryphal story from the US that suggested the average car owner uses their vehicle only 6% of the time. Others in the audience confirmed this, saying 6% was probably on the high side. Is such under-utilisation of capital assets sustainable in a post-peak-oil future? There has to be alternative ways of getting around (although a little voice in my head was saying, yeah, so long as the alternative comes with a tow-bracket for my caravan, but that’s a whole different blog). His presentation was upbeat, giving tech examples that are in development now, driverless vehicles, connected cars, self-driven trains, and platooning.

Adam Greenfield is a Senior Urban Fellow at LSCE Cities. He made an interesting case for the design of transport nodes, which, he said were places of heightened awareness and stress. He spoke of the oft-stated goal for transport solutions to be seamless, but in fact expressed the view that seamlessness was a myth. We should embrace seams. We should design our systems with beautiful seams. We usually see mobility as equalling source and destination, when instead mobility should be seen as a space itself. He quotes Georges Amar, author of Mobilit├ęs Urbaines, who proposed two ways in which we might earn time: we can shorten the trip or we can do something productive during the trip. (Hey, I like that one, I’m just passing Crewe as I type.) Adam Greenfield is also a believer in free public transport. I’ll come back to both these concepts later.

David Bonilla is a Senior Research Fellow at the Transport Studies Unit of the University of Oxford. His presentation was on the subject of freight transport. He opened with a statistic: 50% of world transport energy is used moving freight. Seems a surprise at first, but then, think about the quantities of stuff we consume. Think about how this stuff has to be moved around the world. He spoke of the growing need to diversify from oil and the need to balance competitiveness with sustainability. Freight transport is, more and more, being driven by the growth of e-commerce. We don’t talk enough about freight transport. Perhaps we should.

So yes, transport. Not the most sexy subject? Not science fiction? But I left Imperial College at five, I had a pleasant meal in the city, and I am now blasting North through the Midlands, home by nine-thirty if all goes well. I am grateful I do not have to do it on a horse.

Thanks to Dr Gary Graham for asking me along to this symposium. Thanks to everyone at Imperial College for putting the event on and making us welcome. Useful and interesting links to sustainable and future cities topics appear at the end of this blog.

Post script. There is another side to this story. I arrived at Runcorn Station at 21.30 and climbed into my car. I paid £8 for the car park and was home by 21.50. I was in bed by half-past-ten. Instead, I could have stayed on the train to Liverpool Lime Street and continued my journey by public transport. Why, then, did I choose to stomp seven-league-boot-footprints of carbon all over the Cheshire countryside? Adam Greenfield said all public transport should be free. At this point in his talk it was all I could do to restrain myself from leaping to my feet, pumping the air with my fist and shouting yes, yes, yes! I am passionate about free public transport. There are all kinds of economic models that support it, and yet it is a subject that is rarely spoken of in public. But, there is, as ever, another side. Had I stayed on the train to Liverpool my choice would have been Bus or local rail. The local rail option is good, but there’s a half-hour walk on the other side, which, as it happened, would have been in the rain. The bus, for me, is free, and there are plenty of them. But had I chose either option I would not have arrived home until nearly eleven. Georges Amar says, shorten the trip or do something productive on the trip. I will happily use my iPad on inter-city rail, with a little table to rest it on and a coffee at my elbow. I have more respect for my property and personal safety, though, than to wave four-hundred quid’s worth of iPad around, on a bus, in certain areas, at eleven o’clock at night. Yes, clearly we have a way to go. Free isn’t quite the whole answer. Provision isn’t quite the whole answer. Transport isn’t quite the whole answer.

Links
Sustainable Society Network
tweet: @sustainablesoci
Too Smart Cities, Guardian article

3 comments:

geoffnelder said...

Thanks for this illuminating report on the Transport Futures meeting, Mike. I cycle ridiculous distances except in bad weather or when I need to carry bulky stuff. I like to think I have my personal transport priorities right but there is so much more to do.
Yes to the seams!

Mjke Wood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mjke Wood said...

Geoff, thanks for the comment. I do admire your cycling commitment. I used to cycle a lot myself but I got run over, and lost the passion for it after that. This Easter, though, I'm taking the bike to Holland. Apparently the Dutch do better cycle lanes than us, so maybe I'll get back some of my enthusiasm for two-wheels. I suspect I'll spend the week pointing and wagging my finger, saying, that's how you do cycle lanes! That's how you do Public Transport!