Ease up on the hyperbole, iron out the inconsistencies and the government’s new urban mobility strategy might just be judged a masterly piece of work.
Transport minister Jesse Norman sets the tone in the foreword to his department’s new document Future of mobility: urban strategy. Britain is on the verge of a transport revolution. It could positively transform the way we travel, work and live.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity here,” he says.
This strategy is the first significant output of the future of mobility Grand Challenge, one of four such Challenges set out in the government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy. The strategy aims to boost UK productivity by capitalising on global technological advances and addressing macro-economic trends. Other challenges it tackles are artificial intelligence and data, the ageing society and clean growth.
It details how the movement of people and goods and services is likely to transform in future with cleaner transport, automation, new business models and modes of travel.
As an example, a trial to get drivers out of their cars and cut congestion and pollution is underway in the West Midlands as part of a £20M Future Mobility programme. All-modes travel cards loaded with up to £3,000 of credit will be issued to motorists in exchange for them leaving their cars parked on their driveways.
Nine “urban mobility principles” promoting the use of public, shared and new transport modes underpin the strategy (see box). They appear laudable and, indeed, were lauded by all those spoken to about the strategy by New Civil Engineer.
“Changes are happening and will continue to happen. We have a choice: we can take part, engage, be socially responsible – or we can take a riskier path, letting technology lead the way, hoping the outcomes are good,” says WSP UK head of transport (planning and advisory) and ICE vice president Rachel Skinner.
It is all about taking and keeping control and not becoming hostages to fortune
It is all about taking and keeping control and not becoming hostages to fortune, she says. “The strategy is trying to ensure this. The document has all the right ingredients.”
Importantly, the document sounds a clear call for effective change management to avoid undesired effects. “The government is committed to managing the transition to maximise the benefits and mitigate the risks,” the document states.
Overall, the strategy’s words are fairly unremitting in their positivity; the language upbeat. Reviews are mixed, however, with some commentators believing there is “rather too much hype”.
“Many aspects of the strategy report are commendable, its authors dealing with a big and complex picture,” says Mott MacDonald professor of future mobility at University of the West of England, Bristol Glenn Lyons. “But does it strike the right balance?” he asks.
He says the report “sort of gives the impression that everything in the future – concerning mobility, sustainability, economic benefit, the creation of jobs – is all going to be good. It’s a difficult balancing act, exploring the benefits and challenges. But when the future is presented quite so positively, there’s a sense that it’s too good to be true”.
There are also concerns that there are inconsistencies within the nine principles. “They’re not perfect; I see conflicts and some misalignment between them,” Lyons comments.
What happens when developing factors driving industrial strategy are in conflict with social strategy, he asks? What if development of autonomous taxis and ever more economic electric vehicles plus ride hailing eases mobility but worsens congestion and puts downward pressure on mass transit?
We can take part or we can take a riskier path, letting technology lead the way, hoping the outcomes are good
The strategy document does chart the possibilities of the unintended consequences of change – for instance, the ease of autonomous urban travel perhaps dissuading people from walking or cycling, thereby leading to health problems and consequential burdens on the National Health Service.
There is also criticism that the strategy contains little or nothing on the likely reduction in demand for office working with concomitant reduction in commuting; and also that there is no overt mention of road user charging.
The ICE for one is pressing for road user charging, with its latest policy paper, urging the launch of a pay-as-you-go roads model by 2030. The ICE says such a model is vital as the expected rise in electric car use will reduce demand for petrol and diesel, which in turn will reduce tax revenues from these sources.
The government should implement a fair and sustainable method of roads revenue generation to ensure the UK’s economic and social wellbeing, the ICE says, within 10 years. Skinner is naturally disappointed therefore that it is not directly addressed in the strategy.
“Nevertheless, this mobility strategy is much needed and the report is a very strong starting point to a better place,” Skinner says. “A place that is safer, cleaner, healthier and less congested; a place with boundless opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurialism.”
Government urban mobility principles
- New transport modes and mobility services to be safe and secure
- The benefits of innovation to be available to all
- Walking, cycling and active travel* to be best option for short journeys
- Mass transit to remain fundamental to efficient transport
- New services to lead the transition to zero emissions
- Innovation to aid reduced congestion – eg shared rides, higher occupancy, consolidating freight
- Marketplace open to stimulate innovation and benefit consumers
- New services to be part of system, combining public, private and multiple modes
- Shared data to improve choice and system operation
*Travel by wheelchair, mobility scooters, adapted cycles and e-bikes.
Automatic speed limiters
Road safety experts’ deepest wish – that speed limits are obeyed – will soon be fulfilled with, it is hoped, a significant reduction in those killed and seriously injured on Britain’s roads.
A small device known as an intelligent speed assistant (ISA) will use GPS data and sign recognition cameras to detect speed limits. An alarm will sound if the limit is being exceeded, and the vehicle will slow down, automatically.
New vehicles are likely to be fitted with ISA technology within the next three years under a European law that will be replicated in Britain whatever the outcome of Brexit.
Legislation will embrace ISAs and other safety features including drowsiness detectors and enhanced visibility for lorry drivers.
“Automatic speed limiters are a logical and welcome addition to vehicle abilities,” says WSP head of transport (planning and advisory) Rachel Skinner.
“New vehicles are already bristling with kit such as self-parking and lane following equipment. But speed limiters represent a significant step up in tangible control.”
“ISA via connectivity is one of the first technologies of a whole new layer of vehicle control capability within the rapid evolution of new mobility,” she says.
“We presumably all agree that reducing the killed and seriously injured on roads in Britain – currently nearly 27,000 per year – would be a good thing.”