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What do we want for transportation in our urban areas?

Few would argue that transport is the lifeblood of any city – a vibrant economy depends on the efficient movement of people, goods and data.

According to the World Health Organisation, two in 10 people lived in urban areas 100 years ago, this rose to over half by 2010 and by 2050 it is anticipated that seven out of ten will live in dense urban areas.

With such growth anticipated, how can quality of life be protected and enhanced from environmental, social and health points of view. Different modes of transport have the ability to benefit or harm these factors as well as playing a vital role in economic competitiveness and success at local, national and global levels.

It is more than10 years since “The Future of Transport White Paper considered the role of private cars in urban areas of the UK and encouraged local authorities, to think about charging motorists to access towns and cities within an integrated approach to multi-modal transport.

Seven areas, including the major conurbations as well as smaller centres undertook feasibility studies, but none of these proposals came to reality. The most high profile was probably Manchester, where a referendum in 2008, rejected congestion charging.

We now live in very different times and face a number of questions. Have we really reached peak car usage? Why has homeworking never really materialised? Why isn’t public transport perceived as being as attractive travel by car? Despite its growth, is cycling really a viable mode in urban areas? Is the cost of fuel justified for the ‘”service” drivers receive or expect? Do most people really have viable modal choices?

What is clear is the role technology plays in the everyday – smart phones, smart ticketing, smart meters and even smart motorways are essential features of our lives.  These all play a major role in the connected, intelligent mobility agenda, providing networks with extra capacity, improving reliability and giving us more information “any time, any place, anywhere”.

Our personal transportation agendas will soon become even more complex as vehicles become more efficient, connected, shared and autonomous.

Given the need for economically successful, attractive places to live, work and play, perhaps today’s consideration should be: “what does transportation look like in a connected, smart city”?

The hope is that most of us would want an easily accessible, integrated, multi-modal transport network in which users have genuine, cost neutral choices; where they can pay on account irrespective of mode; have access to up to the minute information enabling informed modal choices based on real time need and network demand; where rewards are provided for making “green” modal and time based decisions and, where users feel an integral part of their city and their transportation system.

Perhaps the time is right to consider urban performance holistically with transportation, economy, place, health and social wellbeing all contributing to success. Success should be measured in terms of happiness and in financial terms and is underpinned by a hierarchy of objectives for decision making and investment.

Reduced environmental impact, reduced congestion, improved safety, and improved accessibility would allow for the reallocation of city space to the more productive functions of commerce, retail, leisure, health and education providing a real sense of place and well-being. Establishing carefully thought out criteria for vehicles entering our towns and cities would help, in part, realise such changes.

Whether charging motorists to access city streets, either on environmental or congestion grounds, has a place within such thinking remains to be seen. But given that technology and the associated intelligent mobility agenda might allow for a great leap forward within an integrated, easily accessible and socially equitable transport system, now might be time to re-open the debate.

  • Giles Perkins is business development director, intelligent transport, at Mouchel


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