Smart Transport

Can everyone be a winner with transport and technology?

Stephen Joseph says decision-makers must take care to ensure the technologies they introduce will contribute to, rather than undermine, policies

One of the problems with having a programme called ‘Smart Transport’ is that many people coming to it fresh assume that it’s all about driverless cars and technology.

Those involved know by now, it’s about more than that – how technology and the private sector can support the wider objectives of local and national government – cutting congestion, tackling climate change and creating liveable and healthy communities. 

This means the huge advances in technology in transport can’t be accepted uncritically, or as an inevitable future for societies to accept, adapt to, encourage and welcome. 

There’s no doubt the advances in vehicle technology, the use of data and the new mobility services can bring great benefits.

But they also have downsides and can bring problems too – and could, in some circumstances, lead to societies and communities that no one will want to live in.

So, policymakers and politicians are going to look hard at technology and new mobility services and will regulate and manage them so they contribute to, rather than undermine, their wider policies. 

This is not a case of know-nothing politicians or officials getting in the way of progress – it is about ensuring technology contributes to the wider good of society. 

Take autonomous vehicles (AVs). The visions for these sometimes present a future where every vehicle on the road is fully autonomous and so deaths and injuries from road crashes will be eliminated, congestion will be a thing of the past, mobility for the elderly and disabled will be improved and areas taken up with parking spaces can be released for development. 

But these are only one version of the future with AVs.

It’s not hard to see how they might enable other futures. I once challenged a senior insurance company executive about conflicts between AVs and pedestrians and his response was to demand more controls on pedestrians and jaywalking, saying that UK pedestrians were particularly uncivilised and uncontrolled. 

However, this runs entirely counter to the direction of policy in most cities, which are busy promoting walking and cycling and cutting motor traffic.

They are doing this for wider policy reasons – to reduce obesity by increasing physical activity, to cut pollution and simply as a recognition that in cities, space is scarce and people walking and cycling and using buses or trams make more efficient use of this space than they do in motor vehicles, even if autonomous and electric. 

The good news is technologies can definitely help tackle climate change and contribute to other public policy objectives.

I’ve been struck by the huge growth in electric bikes. 

We have also seen growth in the use of electric scooters and other forms of “micromobility”, despite them not, in fact, being legal in the UK.

All this suggests that public demand and tastes may take mobility and transport in directions unexpected by either the private or public sectors.

However, policy and regulation can shape those tastes and trends.

Read Stephen Joseph's full article on transport and technology from Smart Transport Journal


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