Smart Transport

Transport professionals need 'creativity and ingenuity' to solve the climate crisis, says WSP UK head of transport, Rachel Skinner

The ‘pester power’ surrounding climate change is coming of age, says WSP’s UK Head of Transport, Rachel Skinner, and the same message is bubbling up in increasingly actionable ways. It could well be the jump-start we all need

For readers of columns and blogs I’ve written for the DfT, BEIS and CBI, you’ll know that I feel strongly that the publication of the DfT’s “Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy” is a pivotal moment. I have previously written about the need for better, stronger collaboration between public and private sectors (with the latter defined much more broadly than the tech firms alone) and it is exciting to see similar thoughts emerging as national strategy.

For the first time, the UK has a set of strategic guiding principles to help steer us on the complex 21st century path from today’s transport system towards a future that doesn’t create more problems than it solves. 

A new driving force for better transport?

The nine principles are sound, clear and broad, ranging from the need to safeguard walking, cycling and mass transit, to conscious consideration of inclusivity and data ownership, and firmly pushing for safer, lower carbon solutions. The healthy tension between the principles is clearly acknowledged. In my view, they could act as criteria against which the benefits of emerging new mobility solutions could be appraised and compared – both in isolation and combination – to determine the best specific transport and planning strategies at local, regional and national scales.

Those looking to criticise might suggest that there is no indication of which principles are most important or urgent, but to me the fact that they exist is the first essential step towards exactly these details.  All are also vitally important in moving the agenda forward.

In addition to a core theme, threaded throughout, around the need for a step-change in collaboration across public and private sectors for ‘good’, long-run, sustainable mobility outcomes for people and places, there is also an underlying message about guarding against technology for its own sake.  In other words, we need to understand what we’re trying to achieve and then seek out technologically smart, appropriate solutions to meet that need, rather than the other way around.

Tuning in to the public mood over recent weeks, however, it strikes me that there is another angle that we might bring into play more clearly in 2019 and beyond. 

‘Our house is on fire’

This is best articulated through the voice of Greta Thunberg. This remarkable young woman has captured the zeitgeist of our teenage generation, the children who have been growing up alongside the ever-growing pile of evidence around climate change. She is fundamentally unimpressed that the “adults” have not yet spotted (or seem to be choosing not to notice) that “our house is on fire”.

For the avoidance of doubt, in Greta’s worldview and given the direct link between our transport systems and the everyday behaviour it encourages, also the embedded carbon within our transport infrastructure and onward investment, we are some of those adults.  It isn’t just transport, of course, and nor is it just infrastructure, but the point is made.

2019 seems to be the year when this same message, articulated in many different ways, is bubbling up in a far more visible, audible and actionable way that ever before.  The ‘pester-power’ surrounding climate change is coming of age.

I would argue that those in the position to influence responsible, sustainable long-run transport and mobility futures have little choice but to act. And in my view, looking again at our emerging national transport strategy and the technological potential through this lens, this brings enormous potential and opportunity.

Coming back to the DfT’s Future of Mobility publication, the seeds are already planted around cleaner, lower carbon futures, for example through the “essential” transition to zero emission vehicles. More broadly, the National Infrastructure Assessment, published by the National Infrastructure Commission in mid-2018, is completely clear about the need to build on the “quiet revolution” in low carbon energy sources over the next decade to deliver more than half of UK electricity by 2030, and to seek 100% electric vehicle sales in the same timeframe. Most recently, around the newly formed Infrastructure Commission for Scotland table, I am pleased to report that the debate on the potential of infrastructure to deliver a genuinely inclusive, low carbon future is very much alive.

These are clearly constructive steps in the right direction towards a lower carbon future.

But are they sufficient to put out Greta’s fire? And do they have the impetus to do it in time?

There is no doubt that we could do more.

We could recast all of the above publications with a more overt message around climate change as a fundamental driver of change, as well as an outcome.

As transport professionals, we could bring our creativity and ingenuity to bear, and work closely with others, not only to fend off or adapt to climate-driven change but to mitigate and reduce it wholesale. This will need us to take the opportunities to deliver net zero – or even net positive – carbon solutions, everywhere and at all scales.

We could find ways to align carbon-led outcomes with financial and commercial returns, and through this find more ways to decarbonise our long-standing transport systems at pace.

We could find many more ways to seek productivity- and carbon-led outcomes that are mutually reinforcing.

As always, this is easy to say but challenging in practice.  Different public and private sector stakeholders naturally act in different geographies, with different timelines and with different core interests.  That said, the opportunities are there if we look.  Perhaps we can use the DfT’s proposed Future Mobility Zones to learn not only about the elements of the future mobility bundle that tend to work best in which context, but also which ones generate the greatest potential for genuinely sustainable outcomes.

Patchwork of solutions

The good news is that we aren’t looking for a single national mobility solution to solve everything at a stroke, or to be implemented at the flip of a virtual switch. Instead, we are looking for a patchwork of local and strategic mobility solutions that will overlap, join and evolve. Ideally, some of these will generate revenues to fund others, and together they will form a coherent and sustainable system. Working together, we can get more comfortable with the idea that our physical transport infrastructure assets (roads, rail etc) are relatively fixed but the digital system overlay is likely to evolve multiple times over the life of these assets. This means that there is room for experimentation and improvement, so we can constantly look for ways to optimise for carbon, safety, efficiency, accessibility and fair returns.

Could Greta and others give us the jump-start we need? I hope so – because that would be smart transport at its best.

Orchestrated well – and quickly, the mobility changes that we are already experiencing could make vast new areas of land accessible for new homes and jobs, give us cleaner air, reduced congestion, fewer road deaths and a better quality of life. Done carelessly and without the right collaboration, we could make every one of these aspects worse – and it is all of us who will have to carry that cost.

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