Four possible visions for the future of public transport

A self-driving bus in Shanghai. Image: Getty.

The way people get around is starting to change, and as a professor of transport strategy I do rather wonder if the modes of transport we use today will still be around by the turn of the next century.

Growing up, my favourite book was a children’s encyclopaedia first published in 1953. One double page spread featured an annotated cityscape, showing all aspects of the built environment – most of which we would still be familiar with now. The various modes of transport illustrated – trains, buses, lorries, taxis, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians and private cars – still work together as a system in fundamentally the same ways.

But a whole range of possible (though not inevitable) societal and technological changes could revolutionise how we travel in the coming decades. These include large-scale responses to the climate change agenda and energy sourcing and security; shifting demographic trends (such as growing numbers of elderly people); the development of the collaborative economy; the growing use of big data; and the apparent inevitability of driverless cars.

To examine what future urban transport systems might look like, I recently directed a future-gazing project for New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport exploring how people might be travelling in the year 2045. I helped develop four scenarios, along two axes of change.

The first axis considered automation – at one end, vehicles are still be driven much like today (partial automation). At the other, they’re driverless (full automation). The second axis related to how dense cities could become – one future where the population is more dispersed (like Los Angeles) and another where it is concentrated at a higher density (more like Hong Kong). With these axes in mind, I generated four possible futures for public transport, which could play out in cities across the world.

Choose your fighter. Image: Marcus Enoch.

1. Shared shuttles

In the “shared shuttle” city, demand responsive minibuses, Uber-style taxis and micro-modes – such as shared bicycles, electric bikes and hoverboards – to cover the “last mile” to your destination are widespread. Hiring these different forms of transport is simple, thanks to seamless booking and payment systems and a thriving entrepreneurial spirit among a range of commercial, social and government transport providers. Meanwhile, new environmental regulations mean that owning a car is more expensive than it used to be, and private vehicles are restricted to the suburbs.

Flexibility is a core feature of this scenario, with vehicles and services that adjust to the needs of individuals, and with how the space continually adapts to meet the needs of the city as a whole. There’s also a collaborative ethos, reinforced by the development of a more compact and high-density city, while progress toward full automation has been slow because of safety and privacy concerns.

2. Mobility market

Private cars still dominate urban transport in the mobility market scenario. Many citizens live and often work in dispersed, low-density suburban areas, since city-centre housing became too expensive for most to afford. Fewer people walk and cycle, because of the long distances involved. And the use of public transport has declined, since less dense transport networks mean there are fewer viable routes, though a limited network of automated trains and buses is still used for trips to the city centre.

Car use has fallen somewhat since the 2010s, because “active management” measures – such as pre-bookable fast lanes and tolls – are now necessary to control congestion, despite the completion of a sizeable road building programme in the recent past.

Instead, commercially provided pre-paid personalised “mobility packages” are helping to stimulate the use of a whole range of shared mobility options, such as car-pooling, bike hire and air taxi schemes. These now account for around a quarter of all journeys.


3. Connected corridors

Society in this high-tech, highly urbanised world of connected corridors is characterised by perceptive but obedient citizens who trade access to their personal data in return for being able to use an extremely efficient transport system. Physically switching between different services or even different modes of travel is hassle free, thanks to well designed interchange points, and fully integrated timetabling, ticketing and information systems.

For instance, travellers might walk, e-cycle or take a demand-responsive minibus to a main route interchange, then board a high frequency rail service to get across town and finally take a shared autonomous taxi to their destination. Each will be guided by a personalised, all-knowing “travel ambassador” app on their smartphone or embedded chip, which will minimise overall travel times or maybe maximise sightseeing opportunities, according to their preferences.

Private cars are not really needed. People trust technology to deliver inexpensive and secure transport services and appreciate living close to work, family and friends.

4. Plentiful pods

In this future, fleets of variously-sized driverless pods now provide around three-quarters of those journeys that still need to be taken across the low-density, high-tech city. These pods having largely replaced most existing public transport services, and the vast majority of privately-owned cars.

People do still walk or cycle for some shorter trips. But pods are so convenient, providing affordable point-to-point journeys for those not satisfied by virtual interactions. Passengers can pay even less, if they agree to share with others. Pods are also fully connected to the internet, and are priced and tailored to meet customer needs. Ultimately, pods give people the freedom to work, learn or live where the weather is best or the houses are cheapest.

My research did not pass judgement as to which scenario should be pursued. But it did conclude that public transport will need to evolve to meet future challenges, and that the role of government will still be of key importance going forward, no matter which path is chosen. Personally though, if forced to choose, I think I’d favour a shared shuttle future more than the others – it just seems more sociable.

The Conversation

Marcus Enoch, Professor in Transport Strategy, Loughborough University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.