Driverless cars and Mobility as a Service can improve our world – so long as they're properly regulated

Uber-branded driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Image: Getty.

New technology has the potential to improve public transport and increase mobility – but we won’t reap the benefits without the right intervention by government. If new technologies are not implemented properly they will potentially worsen health outcomes, reduce safety, increase congestion and make it harder for the government to achieve their objectives.

Electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) are intrinsically linked issues that will develop together to provide an on-demand autonomous vehicle service (“Uber without drivers”) alongside other public and private transport modes. This will sit alongside the private ownership of electric and autonomous vehicles which continues the conventional model.

We are already seeing journey planning apps evolve from merely providing travel information to linking through to transport service provision. This will evolve to a full MaaS model, where various public and private transport options are presented alongside each other, with ordering and payment for any services used handled by the app. This will include on-demand autonomous vehicle rides.

MaaS has potential to help achieve the health, wellbeing, air pollution and congestion objectives of government, but only through good user interface design where active and sustainable transport are included and prioritised. But if not planned properly, active travel options, which cannot currently earn revenue for the app providers, could be deprioritised in the app user interface (that is, shown with less prominence, not ‘front-and-centre’).

Citymapper, for example, shows Uber alongside other modes and allows booking from within the app. Government will therefore need to influence third party app design to prioritise walking and public transport use in order to achieve their sustainable transport aims. This could be achieved by restrictions on the supply of transit data – for example, requiring journeys that can be completed on foot in under 20 minutes to have walking as the first or most prominent option. It could also be achieved by purchasing prominence in the user interface in much the same way advertising is purchased.


Autonomous vehicles, arranged on a shared basis, could allow more people to stop owning cars. In a positive scenario walking, cycling and public transport would remain the main public transport modes with autonomous vehicles used on rare occasions for specific reasons, such as visiting places with poor public transport or collecting large items.

However, if the pricing of autonomous vehicle rides is set too close to that of public transport fares there is potential for mode shift away from sustainable transport to autonomous vehicles. If the autonomous vehicle ride cost is too low relative to public transport fares this will also encourage low occupancy levels. This negative scenario would cause increased congestion and have worse health outcomes as active travel stages of journeys decrease.

Electric and autonomous electric vehicles are not zero emission: air pollution is generated in their production and when the electricity for their operation is generated. More significantly, they are responsible for roadside particulate matter (PM) pollution from braking systems and tire wear. Therefore, the introduction of electric vehicles and autonomous electric vehicles should not be permitted to facilitate an increase in private or private hire vehicle trips.

Autonomous vehicles are presented as being safer and requiring less road space because they can drive closer together. However, to achieve these benefits all vehicles on the road will need to be autonomous and coordinated. Complete adoption of autonomous vehicles is unlikely any time soon, without an intervention such as banning conventional vehicles.

The benefits of autonomous vehicles will not appear automatically. As with any technology, we need to ensure it is regulated properly – and we don’t lose sight of the healthier society we were hoping to achieve.

Steve Chambers is policy & research coordinator at Living Streets, the charity for every day walking, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

How can you travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow? Let me count the ways

A train at Falkirk High. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

How many train lines link Edinburgh and Glasgow? Go on, guess. Two? Three? Surely not four?

No, our two biggest cities in Scotland, separated by just 41 miles as the crow flies, have five – yes, five – different routes between them now. Here is a look at each route, from north to south.

Counter-intuitively, the quickest route does not dart straight across between the cities. From Edinburgh, which is slightly further north than Glasgow, the express service heads north west, past the ruin of Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, as far as Falkirk High before heading south west to Glasgow Queen Street station. This can be as quick as 42 minutes, but only twice a day, although work is being done to have all services run this fast. The rest of the time it takes 47 minutes, on average; from Monday to Friday it runs every 15 minutes.  As the express route, this is the most frequently used service and is the main recipient of Scottish Government spending for connections between Edinburgh and Glasgow, having received £870m in investment in recent years.

The new route via Cumbernauld starts out along the same line, but instead of stopping at Falkirk High goes to Falkirk Grahamston. From there it takes a different line through Cumbernauld, famous for its 1960s brutalist town planning. After that the train stops at various suburbs in the north east of Glasgow such as Stepps, before again reaching Queen Street station, albeit from the north east. This service started in December 2018 and takes about 1hr15.

A rail map of the central belt. The new line is so new it isn’t on here. Image: Scotrail.

The route via Airdrie and Bathgate looks like it would be quicker than the main Falkirk High route, as it is closest to resembling a straight line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. This service, however, stops at a plethora of stations across West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and Greater Glasgow.

All in all, there are 21 stops between Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Queen Street, which can add up to a grand total of 1hr17 (some journeys are slightly quicker). This provides a decent service for the many small towns on the route, but is obviously not a good option for anyone wanting a speedy journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh.


This line does uniquely stop at the lower level station at Queen Street, though, and passengers get to travel below Glasgow’s city centre to Charing Cross and Partick. This route is not to be confused with the Glasgow Subway, which this cut-and-cover line predates by ten years. After coming above ground, the train continues west of the city, with the option to head on to the affluent commuter towns of Bearsden and Milnagavie or to Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde.

Thus, someone can hop on a train in the western outskirts of Glasgow and get to the centre of Edinburgh, all in one go; it will just take a very long time. Helensburgh Central to Edinburgh Waverley takes about 1hr50. As Queen Street and Partick rail stations are integrated with the Glasgow Subway, it also means you can continue your journey around Glasgow circular subterranean experience.

The Shotts line has an abundance of stations, and so journeys that stop at each one can take up to 1hr30, although there are services with fewer stops that take 15 minutes less. This line dips further south slightly than the Airdrie/Bathgate route and slowly works its way through stations in the west of Edinburgh. It then heads through towns such as Livingston and Shotts. Unlike the first three routes, this line ends at Glasgow Central, and therefore the train takes you through the south of Glasgow before crossing the River Clyde.

The Shotts Line is also used by Cross Country services going from Glasgow to cities in England, such as Bristol, via Edinburgh; and these train will make fewer stops between the two. Passengers from Glasgow are also able to stay on trains that pass through Edinburgh and continue on to the seaside towns in East Lothian of North Berwick and Dunbar.

Finally, there is the V-shaped route between Edinburgh and Glasgow. This looks like it would take the longest, but surprisingly can be done in 1hr20 due to there being few stops. From Glasgow, the line goes south east through Motherwell along one branch of the West Coast Mainline, before arriving at the Carstairs junction. From there the line veers sharply north east along the other branch of the West Coast Mainline to Edinburgh. This route has the downsides of being slow, and not even offering many stops along the way to make up for it.

So basically, if you want to travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow, just go via Falkirk High.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.