New technologies and population growth will require a rethink in road provision planning. 2050 will look very different from 2020 and probably nothing like we imagine it today.
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Who would want to be predicting inter-city road traffic levels over the next 30 years? Well engineers will have to do that; flying blind into a world of electric vehicles, autonomous cars, not to mention the impact on travel patterns of hyperloops, high speed rail, cleaner, quieter air travel and – if someone has the money to buy them – personal vertical take-off and landing vehicles.
Engineers have to be at the core of the debate and the solutions for the world’s highway infrastructure. Yet they will have to do it against a background of rapidly rising populations – globally estimated at 9.8bn in 2050, up from the current 7.6bn, while the UK’s population will be 77M, up from 65M.
They will also have to factor in technological revolution.
Will the solution to gridlock be laying endless tarmac to allow various, including as yet unimagined, technologies to slug it out for supremacy in the arena of ground based personal transport? Will plans be based on the traditional predict and provide model with the expectation that vehicle numbers will inevitably explode? Or are there other alternatives?
Well yes, there are, as University of West of England and Mott MacDonald professor of future mobility Glenn Lyons explains.
“We have the choice to decide and provide the transport we want including the road travel, based on what is best for society.
“What may be feasible for future mobility is not necessarily the same as what is desirable,” he says. “Regardless of technology, if stewardship of the future is highly valued, then the measure of effective mobility should be its ability to shape and support the sort of society we want – economically prosperous but also socially desirable and environmentally sustainable.
“Land use allows connectivity through proximity, and there is an appealing trend in good urban design to enable people to live locally – close to where they work and socialise – yet act globally through a telecom system that allows connectivity.
“Together, physical movement, proximity and digital connectivity form a ‘triple access system’. This should be the focus of attention when addressing future mobility.”
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Or in other words you cannot plan inter-city road investment in isolation from urbanisation and telecom development.
In the UK, the Greater Manchester Transport Strategy 2040 used scenario planning to assess future demand. The work highlighted the fact that many of the key variables were in the control of Transport for Greater Manchester and the local authorities themselves, bringing home the potential of using decide and provide.
Development body England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) has also recognised that it must decide, not predict, and provide, if it is to achieve the extraordinary growth anticipated for the Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge corridor that is envisaged by the National Infrastructure Commission rising from £140bn gross value added up to £300bn gross value by 2020.
“It’s about defining and shaping what kind of place we want to create and mapping a path that recognises this is just a framework that will go through economic and technical cycles,” says EEH programme director Martin Tugwell. “Predict and provide won’t do it, we need to plan for different scenarios.
“The political leaders have big choices to make to cope with the scale of growth over 30 years, for instance: will there be one or two big new settlements or lots of smaller ones.
“And when we look at the transport strategy, what is our vision and what are our objectives? Why not target a carbon zero transport network? That’s the power of scenarios, you think about what you want the place to be and create a framework for people to deliver that.”
Lyons agrees that setting the conditions that are sensible and best for a future society is the way forward. “Nationally,” he suggests, “one approach might be a high-level commitment akin to climate change commitments. For instance, agree to continue the urbanisation trend at 1% a year, maintain existing roads at the 2018 level and increase by 2% the number of households with access to superfast broadband.”
Certainly broadband has superseded roads as the way to deliver economic growth. The World Bank has calculated that a 10% increase in high speed internet connections increases economic growth by 1.3%. And according to the World Economic Forum “in a world where only 40% of the population has access to the internet, we could boost global GDP by £750bn by connecting another 327M people”.
In the UK, digital communications could partly be behind changing travel demand patterns that suggest younger people living in the country’s growing cities are less in love with driving a car than previous generations.
According to the first report of the Commission on Travel Demand, set up by professor Greg Marsden of Leeds University’s Institute for Transport Studies, we are making 16% fewer trips than in 1996 and travel 10% fewer kilometres than in 2002. Those born after the mid-1960s are less likely to become regular car drivers. Between 1995 and 1999 around 80% of people were driving by age 30, but between 2010 and 2014 the age at which 80% of people were driving had risen to 45.
The commission’s All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning report published last month has deliberately thrown up more questions than it answers from the evidence gathered from government bodies, authorities and technologists. For instance it notes that although we are travelling fewer kilometres, motorway traffic is increasing. But it highlights the need for transport forecasting to take a broader view.
“Our assessment is that the trends are a combination of longer term societal shifts in activities such as how we work, how we shop, changing demographics, shifts in income across the population as well as policies in the transport sector which have encouraged urbanisation,” says Marsden in the report.
Shift to mobile internet
“The recession has played a part as has the shift to mobile internet and other advances in information and communication technologies. However the trends pre-date both of these. The outcomes are not a blip from a one-off event. We need to change our approach to understanding this and plan for it.”
The Department for Transport’s 2015 national road traffic forecasts did look at a variety of scenarios. They range from the core option which is used currently to plan for a road transport need of 590bn vehicle kilometres a year by 2040 to the highest option of 640bn vehicle kilometres to the lowest option of 480bn vehicle kilometres – that’s a big difference in amount of infrastructure required. Electrification, automation and widespread adoption of car sharing have not been taken into account though they may be in the new forecasts due soon.
The All Change? report throws up questions about how declining car driving in cities would translate to numbers of private car journeys on motorways.
It prompts the question: will autonomous cars add to the numbers and will that transition provide an interesting traffic management challenge? Will environmentally friendly electric cars encourage more people to want them? It also begs the question about what the impact of urban planning and the decide and provide choices of subnational transport bodies will be. In Norway, for instance, its cities have been told by the government to come up with plans to grow the city without growing road traffic.
“And don’t forget freight,” says Oxera principal economist Matthew Shepherd. “If there are highly autonomous platoons of possibly electric or hybrid trucks, that is likely to take a lot of cost out of road freight but it raises interesting questions about road capacity.”
Dash for electricity
The dash for electricity is also throwing up some complex issues according to Leeds University professor of transport and energy Jillian Anable. “The government says it wants to ban conventionally fuelled vehicles by 2040, but it won’t be banning hybrids, so there is more than enough time to make the full scale transition.
“But at the same time, we will be having to change all our gas boilers to electricity, alter the wiring, change industrial processes. There are concerns about how much renewable energy we can get into the grid, and I can’t put a cost on the trillions of pounds of infrastructure spending it requires, it’s so ridiculous. Electric energy stops being a transition problem and becomes all about infrastructure.”
That, say Lyons, Marsden, Annable and Shepherd, is precisely why we need scenario planning.
All Change? has suggestions about how this could be embraced nationally based on adaptive approaches adopted by the Dutch ministry of infrastructure and water management.
- a futures lab which creates a cross-government series of societal scenarios including shifts in the energy sector, and digitisation, against which policy will unfold
- each department then takes the scenarios and interprets them in more detail
- a scenario model is developed and tested, allowing assessment of a range of different assumptions
- decision making then translates into investment in projects which make sense in multiple futures, identifying thresholds which would trigger additional investments, and collecting and evaluating evidence of emerging trends to inform planning assumptions and trigger, amend or cancel additional investments.
For Tugwell, this is an exciting time to be involved in transport. “We are on the brink of something really special, but we need to think of the strategic picture,” he says. For instance, take the roads fund being created from Vehicle Excise Duty (VED).
From 2020 the government has committed to ringfencing all monies generated by VED for strategic highways projects. At EEH, we’d say remember VED is a tax and don’t assume you just use it for capital road construction work; the network could be made better by spending money on maintenance or public transport to take pressure off highways and get better performance out of them.”
Paying to drive, otherwise known as road pricing is starting to sound inevitable when looking into the future of transport.
The reasons are not simply as a remedy to congestion from population growth or strong evidence that increased road building merely generates increased traffic.
The more significant issue is that governments will have to replace fuel tax revenues.
These are falling as vehicles become ever more petrol or diesel efficient or switch to alternative cleaner fuels.
“I’ve felt that the time has been right for road pricing since 2003 but 15 years on and I think that technology, politics and public understanding will see it instituted in five to 10 years,” says John Walker, visiting senior research fellow at Southampton University’s Transportation Research Group. He is also editor of a new book called “Road Pricing – technologies, economics and acceptability” published by the Institution of Engineering & Technology.
“New roads don’t reduce congestion, they just fill up with traffic. Demand management has to be the way forward,” he says.
If it is not a question of if but when, who will jump first? Walker’s money is on California. It is one of three West Coast states, with Oregon and Washington, that have been concertedly trialling road pricing schemes for the past 12 years to find a distance charging system to replace volume-based fuel excise taxes as the United States’ primary road funding mechanism. The US light vehicle fleet is predicted to be using 6bn barrels of oil equivalent a day by 2020, down from 8bn today.
But high rolling California has also discovered another social driver for road charging – unfairness. The rich are able to afford the latest vehicles whether they are hybrids, electric or very fuel efficient while the poor are driving higher emission older cars. And those with most fuel-efficient cars are driving are more because they pay less for doing so.
A successful pilot in 2016 which 5,000 volunteers signed up for within six weeks had a road user charge set at $0.018 (0.013pence) per mile. Most users opted for phone app or in-car smart charge options but it was found that a payment at the pump option was also needed to deal with privacy and affordable technology concerns.
US transportation funding policy firm D’Artagnan Consulting partner James Whitty authored a chapter on the West Coast distance charge programmes in Walker’s book. In it he says the State of California has enough information to enact and implement a distance charge programme as early as this year. The decision is now down to the unpredictability of politics.
In the UK, acceptance of inter city road pricing may develop out of the normalising of such schemes because they are more widely used in urban areas to control air pollution.
This has happened in Milan.In 2008 the city introduced an EcoPass charging scheme in the centre, with fees set at E2 (£1.74), E5 (£4.37) and E10 (£8.74) depending on vehicle emissions. It transformed Milan’s air quality and reduced vehicle entry by over 30%.
In 2012 this was upgraded to the Area C congestion charge, supported by 79% in a public referendum.