Is the humble bus set to become history?

Buses in New York City, last winter. Image: Getty.

In 1890, no one foresaw the rise of the internal combustion engine: horses were the fastest means of transport, and a status symbol.

Today, society stands at a similar tipping point. No one can really predict how transport will be used in the coming century, or if people will even need to travel as much as they do today. But some of the most commonly used modes of public transport may be closer to extinction than previously thought.

Buses have been a reliable feature of urban and rural landscapes for more than 200 years. They have helped to define communities; think of London’s red double-decker bus, or the iconic Greyhound bus across the US. And buses have traditionally been a great social leveller: ethnic minority groups fought hard for the right to share the same seats and stops and the poor enjoy the same regulated prices as the middle class.

Yet the end of the bus has already been signalled. In the UK, there has been a reported decline in bus and train usage over recent decades – and it’s not related to the nation’s sluggish economy. Today, only 5 per cent of journeys are made by bus, with 10 per cent by rail, 1 per cent by air, 1 per cent by bicycle and 83 per cent by car or taxi.

Automation domination

The UK has added 45,000 more private hire vehicles in the last year, driven by Uber and similar ride-sharing companies. These organisations are dominant in London, but they are becoming more active in other metropolitan areas.

Uber rolled out to eight areas across the UK in 2016, and Gett has grown by acquiring and repurposing traditional taxi companies such as Radio Taxis. And point-to-point minibus services, such as those piloted by Slide in Bristol, UK, and Chariot (backed by Ford) in San Francisco, US, are also expanding into more cities. Surely it’s just a matter of time before their reach expands properly into rural areas.

Get the data. Image: Department for Transport.

According to a British think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the convenience and automation provided by digital technology such as smart phones puts 63 per cent of transport jobs at risk of replacement over the next 50 years. Plus, fleets of autonomous vehicles are set to decimate the automotive industry, potentially reducing the number of vehicles required in the UK by over 75 per cent.

A cheaper ride

This transport revolution does provide an opportunity to increase the quality of service and to reduce subsidies, where they exist, by increasing efficiency. It could also lower transport staff numbers and the amount of cash spent on fuel. But all of this will come at a cost.

People who use public transport have traditionally enjoyed “positive” regulations, which ensures usage is fair and open to all. Subsidies from local or city government go towards servicing underused routes – in rural areas, for example – and offering discounted or free fares for young people and pensioners. But now, this model is coming under increasing pressure.

The cost of running a public transport system is effectively fixed in advance, and relies on enough passengers actually travelling to cover the costs. The average number of journeys per worker, per week dropped from 7.1 in 1988-92 to 5.7 in 2013-14, leading to a shortfall in expected demand. And changes in the funding rules mean there is no guarantee that operational subsidies will be available going forward; indeed, the central government has already removed its grant for London’s transport body.

A similar fate awaits metro systems and commuter rail services, and the problem will become chronic if – or rather, when – autonomous vehicles start to spread.


New rules

Silicon Valley tech start ups are now subsiding journeys with discounted travel to get into the transport market. But this is not for the economic benefit of users. Rather, it undermines the existing transport systems and create new, unregulated markets. This could lead to travellers paying whatever the monopoly dictates. In all likelihood, surge pricing will occur, forcing the less affluent into the least popular time slots and the least desirable vehicles.

Perhaps regulating these new modes of transport is part of the answer. But it’s also important to consider how subsidies are applied. One line of thought is that subsidies should be focused on areas where travel choice is restricted. But budgetary pressures could easily mean leaders choose to reduce, rather than redistribute, the subsidy. This would lead to further inequality between the rich and the poor, in a world where social mobility is becoming increasingly difficult.

To inform reasonable regulations and fair subsidy strategies, there needs to be a consensus, or some leadership, about the ultimate aims of transport; whether it’s for growing the economy, connecting communities or something else. In the UK this is more difficult due to governmental structures, whereby ministers focusing on delivery modes (such as rail, road and walking) rather than outcome (commuting, intercity travel and freight, for example).

But there are some good examples to follow, with countries such as Germany rethinking transport with a Department for Transport and Digital Infrastructure, which plans for a wider range of options to pursue social and economic goals.

One thing is for sure: there will be fewer buses around in the future. This disruption will affect communities, but this challenge could also create an opportunity to shape society to function better, by design.

Future generations will live by different rules, have different values and be presented with different opportunities to us. The decisions we make today will have a real and lasting impact on those generations in ways we cannot yet understand – let’s hope we get it right for them.

Marcus Mayers, Visiting Research Fellow, University of Huddersfield and David Bamford, Professor of Operations Management, University of Huddersfield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

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