Brave decisions required to address deepening inequality in the UK transport system

Dr Jessica Symons, Principal Strategic Consultant
31 August 2023
Image of a train going through a tunnel.
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Every individual makes daily decisions based on their perception of the future. These expectations range from personal wellbeing and family planning to financial and career choices. Recognising how future expectations influence decision-making is essential to shaping policies and strategies.

In July 2023, Amey brought together experts from across the sustainable transport spectrum to consider the challenges and solutions to creating the Net Zero transport systems of the future.

The Future of Mobility roundtable between senior Amey transport executives, BBC R&D researchers, University of Manchester academics and the Living Streets walking charity explored how ideas about the future affects people’s travel behaviour and how this understanding could inform the transport strategy. Here we have summarised some of the concepts and ideas discussed on the day.

Rationale for a radical overhaul of transport infrastructure

“We need to design transport solutions that meet the needs of everyone, not just the able-bodied.” Stephen Edwards, CEO, Living Streets walking charity. “People will continue to use cars if they cannot physically get to public transport”.

Most people care about the environment and do not want to produce excess pollution, but for many, car use is not a choice, but a necessity. Public transport relies on people’s ability to walk to the nearby station or bus stop. If people struggle with mobility, they can manage the few paces from their home to their car, but not much more.

Since public transport often does not reach exactly where people want to go, the ‘last-mile’ has become a significant point of focus for transport planners.

For people wrestling with mental health problems, particularly after COVID stimulated proximity anxiety, public transport can be distressing and stressful. Often, just one person stepping too close or speaking inappropriately to a new public transport user will stop them from returning again, if ever.

The rising cost of public transport is also a significant factor in drivers’ decisions not to use it. People without cars, students and workers in city centres may not have any choice about using trains, buses and trams, but they also bemoan the expensive, late and crowded services.

“Transport messaging needs to be simpler, seamless and easily accessible for the traveller at the point when they need it.” Chris Bax, Amey, Head of Transport Advisory. “People should be able to buy a ‘journey’ from A to B rather than multiple tickets from different providers. But it needs to go beyond the ‘Oyster’ style of using trains, trams and buses in London. It should include scooters, bikes and taxis so it really is an end-to-end transport solution.”

‘Seamless travel’ is the new buzzword in the transport community together with ‘integrated invisible infrastructure’. People are more likely to use public transport when the modes of travel fade into the background and instead their journey happens smoothly and comfortably without requiring much thought. Then the travellers can enjoy themselves while they travel rather than suffering the journey and wishing it would end soon.

“All transport needs to be an experience that people value.” Jasmine Cox, BBC R&D. “As part of making good choices between taking a car or public transport, people might perhaps view their travel time as an opportunity for personal growth.”

For many, the use of media through mobile devices and headphones has transformed how people travel, reducing the need for ever faster travel times. When people can work and entertain themselves as they travel, then the journey becomes quality time, an experience in its own right.

People’s reasons for travelling have shifted significantly after COVID with a drop in community and rise in entertainment-based travel. But it is not enough to design a transport system just for people looking for fun.

Designing an inclusive transport infrastructure for the future

The introduction of Electric Vehicles (EVs) and the push towards Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) self-driving have become fashionable topics among affluent, privileged groups but these solutions reinforce a divide with existing disadvantaged communities.

“Existing infrastructure projects tend to overlook the social disbenefits they impose and focus solely on their perceived benefits. Many planned projects do not address the pressing issues faced by disadvantaged populations.” Professor Karen Lucas, University of Manchester.

Placing social houses on the periphery of areas with limited public transport access increases car dependency among low-income communities, hindering their ability to transition to low-emission vehicles. The focus on luxurious commuting experiences may not align with the realities faced by many individuals who struggle with transport access and affordability.

The experience of public transport users, especially bus commuters, is a particular concern. Services are often plagued by delays, reroutes, and inconsistent schedules, making the daily commute more challenging and time-consuming. For individuals already challenged by responsibilities such as family commitments, perceived limited time makes walking or public transport less feasible. The convenience of owning a car appeals more, perpetuating the dominance of car-centric societies.

To address these issues, behavioural measures and leveraging technology can be enablers of change. Creating a centralised app or portal that provides comprehensive information on various transport options, including trains, buses, and their respective schedules, delays, and fares, can empower commuters to make informed decisions. Additionally, incorporating community forums within the app could foster a collective push for improvements and encourage open discussions on transportation-related matters.

“Younger generations have different expectations about travel.” Sidak Chawla, Amey Consultant. “And they expect dialogue and influence about the UK transport problems”

However, technology alone cannot solve the gaps in transportation. There needs to be a combined effort involving both the public and political sectors. People must raise awareness and advocate for better public transport solutions, pushing for the integration of advanced technologies to enhance the overall commuting experience. Simultaneously, policymakers and those in power must collaborate to allocate resources effectively and prioritise investments in public transport infrastructure. Grassroots-led solutions also need to be factored into how new infrastructures emerge.

Financing the transport revolution

Global mobility demands are projected to require $2.5 trillion in investments by 2040, double the level of 2017. The investment mix is already changing to digitally revitalised traditional and new mobility services, such as low-cost high-speed rail and car charging. But with the existing 13 million EVs only representing 1% of the global car market, the move to electric personal vehicles will not have a significant impact quickly and there are concerns about how to fund a whole new EV infrastructure particularly as hydrogen vehicle solutions are also mooted as potential transport game changers.

“Tax is just one tool for managing car usage. Car and passenger movement can also be monetised as content to pay for transport solutions.” Peter Dobson, Amey, Head of Finance. “Cars are now mobile computers providing data on people movements, communicating with traffic systems and taking 3D scans of road landscapes. This content has value that can be sold to pay for infrastructure improvements.”

Innovation in financing transport solutions will help government fund expensive infrastructure needs and allow for experimentation and risk-taking.

There is particular appetite for ‘pay-as-you-drive’ solutions providing alternatives to the contested congestion and air quality control zones. Areas can be geo-fenced using GPS so when a car enters a specific locality, they have a ‘black box’ in their car that registers their location and the driver is automatically charged through a pre-arranged payment system. This solution provides a strong incentive for people to use alternative transport systems (including walking) whilst also providing income to pay for transport solutions in the areas that need it most.

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