The Future of Urban Transport

“Cities make a vital contribution to the success of the country. But their success depends on an efficient, sustainable urban transport system.” Shadiq Khan 

Since the beginning of affordable motoring in the 1950s, the transport sector has seen only gradual and incremental improvements for 50 or so years. But now, transport is on the verge of a revolution.  Radical technologies are emerging which will result in a complete upheaval of how we get from A to B within just one generation.  EVs will replace cars powered by the combustion of petrol and diesel, autonomous vehicles will provide the elderly and disabled with more freedom and improvements in the gathering and handling of data will improve the operation and efficiency of transportation services.  But how can we best manage and implement these technologies to best improve our lives in urban spaces?

The huge uptake in affordable cars about 70 years ago completely reshaped society and the economy as well as drastically influencing how our towns and cities were planned in order to accommodate all of these new vehicles.  While this brought undeniable benefits such as improved accessibility and an increase in employment opportunities, it also has resulted in some huge challenges that we must overcome such as; safety, air pollution, congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution, decline in physical activity and the inefficient use of limited space.  Land use in newer cities especially revolved around driving leading to huge roads and car parks dominating space that could have been used to provide more. According to one report, parking spaces occupy around 15-30% of a typical urban area in the UK.  On top of this, the average car is unused 96% of the time making it an incredibly inefficient mode of transport.

The change in the land use in urban areas to accommodate more vehicles meant that it was harder for those who didn’t drive to get around leading to even more uptake in personal cars.  Public transport is still often seen as the less favourable option for travel in the UK and the only way to change this is for big improvements to be made to alternative modes of transport. People won’t feel like second class citizens for not owning a car when using a car is no longer the easiest option.  Directing our society away from cars and towards better alternatives will have huge benefits; safer streets, smoother journeys, a boost in active travel and public transport, a reduction in emissions as well as unlocking spatial opportunities.

In terms of personal transport around cities, walking and cycling should always be number one choice for short journeys around cities.  The benefits are clear for these active modes of transport for us as well as our surroundings for example, a person on a bike puts 1/65,000 as much wear and tear on roads per year compared someone travelling by car.  Encouraging residents of cities to walk or cycle can be done by making streets more accommodating and safe for them, this can be done by pedestrianising areas or increasing the amount of road set aside for cycle lanes.  Another approach is to increase accessibility to bikes which is why schemes such as bike stations and bike sharing apps have taken off and most UK cities now feature some kind of bike sharing network.  In Glasgow next bike operates across the city and is the world’s most extensive bike sharing provider.

A next bike station in central Glasgow

Public transport is the next best option for travel around cities and when it comes to public transport, options and extensivity are important.  People probably won’t become regular users of public transport unless it serves their specific geographic needs.  Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is driving for improvements in use of and access to public transport.  MaasS integrates various forms of transport services into a single service accessible on demand.  The idea is that the user will tell an app where they want to go and the application will tell the user what route to take to get there most efficiently, this includes the decision on route and the mode of transport as well as taking into account variables such as the price, wait times and even the weather.  So for example, if a user would have to wait more than 8 minutes for a bus, the app would navigate them to the nearest bike station.  As well as this the app will provide a single payment channel instead of multiple payment operations making transactions much less hassle.  Transport providers must sign up to become members of the system in order for their service to be integrated and for them to benefit from the increased data about their customers. I can really see the benefits of a platform like this and it would definitely encourage me to use more public transport if I can see how much cheaper/ faster it could be.

Another improvement to public transportation systems will be the redundancy of cards. Instead, your face will act as your ticket. Passengers will be remotely identified by cameras and their accounts automatically charged accordingly.  While this seems quite big brother, the improvements of pedestrian traffic flow in busy stations is undeniable.  The uptake of this technology can already be seen in China where face recognition payment technology has been used since 2017 but a trial is currently underway to put this technology to use in a Shenzhen subway station.

The world’s first facial recognition payment system launched in a Chinese KFC in 2017.

Huge pushes from emissions legislation means that car manufacturers are increasingly engineering electric vehicles. Clearly the move towards battery powered personal vehicles will make a huge impact on the poor air quality and noise pollution that we currently experience in many urban areas however there is still the problem of how little personal cars are really used. These cars waste resources in producing them and space in the city when storing them. Shared ownership of cars is therefore a much better option for those who still want the freedom that cars allow but without the waste of a car sitting on the road for 96% of its life. With the development of autonomous vehicles, the function of these cars could potentially change, they could become social or work spaces and this combined with shared vehicle ownership or ride hire could completely change the way that we interact with road vehicles.  Below I’ve inserted some images of recent concept cars from some major OEMs, I think they highlight the breadth of capabilities that emerging electric and autonomous technologies could have.

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The Hyundai Elevate concept, Bosh autonomous shuttle concept, Kia Real-time Emotion Adaptive Driving Concept.

It is clear that by providing more transport options and allowing less parking, many more people will be encouraged to ditch their cars therefore improving congestion and traffic however some cities are actually completely pedestrianising roads or banning cars from city centres altogether.  There are many recent examples of huge motorways previously running through cities being closed for the space to be reclaimed for other land use.   In Seoul, an elevated motorway was dramatically transformed back into the stream that was located there before the rapid post-war economic development.   The Cheonggyecheon River linear park has become an oasis in an otherwise concrete jungle and the 3.6 mile long stretch of green space has dramatically improved local biodiversity as well as encouraging economic development and receives 60,000 visitors per day.  Cleverly, this narrow stream corridor can also act as a flood relief mechanism as water will drain there instead of sitting on the roads.  The images below show the dramatic transformation of the land in the last 70 years since construction on the road began.

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I hope I have shown how dramatically some relatively small changes in how transport is managed in cities can improve a huge range of factors about city life.  Many of the technologies aren’t necessarily brand new modes of transport but instead data management has the potential to make using cars less desirable in comparison to the hopefully many public transport options.  This, partnered with the removal of cars from inner city areas has the potential to dramatically improve our daily lives in urban environments.




What is MaaS?

Click to access future-of-mobility-strategy.pdf

Click to access researchreport.pdf


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