selfdriving little bus

A Vision for Transport

Robin McAlpine – 7th April 2022

As ScotRail comes into public ownership, the CalMac ferry debacle trundles on, fuel prices skyrocket and the IPCC report warns us we need to accelerate decarbonisation, transport feels like it is right in the centre of the crosshairs of public policy right now. But do we have a vision?

In fact does anyone have a vision for transport anywhere? I pose the question because I’ve been looking at this for a number of years and I can find lots of analysis of what is wrong with ‘here’ and a fair bit of futuristic vision of what ‘there’ could look like – but there is a big gap between these things.

I have been looking because I’ve been using it as a kick-off for a personal project on a book I know I’ll never get time to finish. I wanted to look at four things that would definitely change in the future and try and work out what the difference between ‘good change’ and ‘bad change’ would look like, and how to avoid the bad change.

So I started with transport, because change is certain. The shift to electric vehicles will eventually have many more benefits than just decarbonisation and the rapid developments in driverless or autonomous vehicles could have seismic consequences.

It left me with a pretty clear picture of what I think will be the long-term outcome for transport, but it is a long long way from where we are. So what do we do now?

There are a few straightforward things that really ought to be self-evident. The fragmentation of public transport in Scotland is a direct result of the deregulation and privatisation frenzies of the 1980s and 1990s. Transport has been treated like not much more than a series of private businesses which the public sector must coax and subsidise into something that looks like a coherent system.

These are easy solutions – we need a consistent, end-to-end public transport system where buses meet trains and ferries meet buses. You ought to be able to turn up at any train or bus station or any ferry port and buy a single ticket to your final destination, involving multiple forms of transport if need be – and they should articulate with each other like a planned system.

Those who travel regularly should be able to get single, discounted, weekly or monthly travel tickets like London’s Oyster card. Again, if you need a bus and then a train, you shouldn’t need two tickets.

But does Scotland trust its transport to what could be a centralisation agenda given the recent CalMac performance? It is possible to create such an integrated public transport system through a carefully-managed franchise system, but those who attack CalMac should also have to address the performance of Abellio, precisely the regulated private sector model some advocate instead.

The problem is that centralised transport is almost an oxymoron and frankly neither civil servants in Edinburgh or private corporations really see Scotland’s many remoter communities as anything other than a nuisance. The solution might well be ‘central infrastructure, community ownership’; the system coordinated nationally, trunk roads and train tracks nationally-managed but ferries, local buses and even local railway stations owned and managed by the community they serve.

(A perpetual disclaimer – this would require that Scotland had a system of local government which represented communities not one which just manages regions.)

And of course we should be encouraging more bike use for those who are able to cycle. But this is a very local solution limited to fit and healthy people in a generally more restricted age range. We need to redesign towns and cities to be much more pedestrian-friendly so much more can be walked. The concept of the ’15-minute town’ is not ambitious enough – go and try a 15-minute walk with a family’s worth of shopping…

Cut prices, subsidise, incentivise – all of that is perfectly possible. But it is where we bump up against the big SUV in the room that the problems arise, because even a perfect version of all of the above does not even nearly meet all our transport needs. You can extrapolate outwards from the statement ‘one bus an hour which doesn’t coincide with the start or finish of my five-year-old’s gymnastic class’.

This is where I start to get a bit annoyed with some of the progressive transport debate (which is very often an urban pursuit) – I live in rural Scotland. I’ve been told ‘well you’ll just need to get there 40 minutes early, wait 40 minutes at the finish and find something to do in between’.

It’s not just rural. When the road toll proposal was a live debate in Edinburgh the least well paid person where I worked had to get two kids to after school clubs which would have involved three buses, some of which she would have needed to be on simultaneously. It is not a realistic solution.

So people will use cars, and cars compete with bikes for road real estate, and then once you’ve got one they are often just cheaper and save you much more time than using public transport options so you don’t get the critical mass on public transport. If you look at the history of urban planning you’ll see that cars quite literally push everything else out of the way.

But hold on, didn’t I just say I can see what the future should look like? Well yes, I can (in a disturbing level of detail – I think about this a lot), but I can’t see how to get there. There has been over-promising on autonomous vehicles but that doesn’t change the reality that the technological progress is enormous. They are coming.

And they are just massively more efficient than humans. Tailbacks on motorways are because humans incessantly break and then accelerate, causing waves that travel backwards down lines of traffic, magnifying until it leads to standstill. Humans have to drive far apart. We need one car that serves all our needs, solo or with family.

My strong guess? Eventually we will ban human drivers from roads altogether as automation shows how bad we are at driving (most of the problems with driverless technology relate to dealing with the irrational actions of human drivers). And when we do few people will want to own a car.

Wherever you are you’ll pull out your smartphone (or whatever we are using by then), click an app, chose a destination and how many passengers are travelling and a car tailored to your needs will arrive right beside you within 30 seconds. If you’re going short urban routes alone the car that arrives will be a one-person pod car. If you’re going to the airport for a family holiday the car that arrives will have lots of luggage space – and so on.

All these cars will be on a single operating system, constantly talking to each other. Your car won’t ‘work out’ that the car in front is slowing down visually, it will be told it directly by the car in front. Roadsigns and markings will be removed, cars will form ‘trains’ moving fast with little distance between them. It’ll take some getting used to but we’ll move from A to B much, much quicker, much less expensively.

And therein lies my dilemma. Trains and buses are incredibly efficient at peak time but not if they’re a double decker dragging three pensioners round a city mid-morning. Fitting your life to their timetables makes perfect sense – until there is a clean, efficient, better alternative.

The short version of this is that I don’t think trains and buses are here for the long term. I think they will look as anachronistic as horses and carriages once there is an on-demand, clear, efficient and fast alternative.

I have a book’s-worth of explanation of how this system would work in my head, but that doesn’t really help, because it’s the ‘from here to there’ which is the problem. If we follow the current path these cars will all be owned by Google or Amazon as an effective total monopoly. You’ll get in these cars and be bombarded with loud advertising from start to finish.

A public version could be pretty utopian, but where is the courage and the vision to take this on? And when is the moment? We are not yet at the point where what I have described above can be realised and until then we need to invest wisely in the best version of the system we have. When do we move from one paradigm to the next? When do we feel comfortable enough to take the leap?

I think this is the dilemma for transport policy. My guess is that it could be as little as 20 years before standing in a queue in the rain to wait for a giant mechanical device that drags 100 of you round a city at once and drops you a fair way away from where you need to get to will seem mad.

But 20 years away is 20 years away. Would you gamble on that future now? Would you keep spending on transport infrastructure we won’t need in the future, much of which is designed to last for many decades? Would you take a punt?

Honestly, this has been rattling around my head so much for so long that I can’t see beyond it, can’t make a neutral judgement. I think this is the inevitable future (20, 30, 50 years from now driving a car by hand will seem like harvesting with a scythe). But I’ve been wrong before.

What do you think? Do I need to go and write my book before this makes proper sense? Do you think there is another way to do this? Is there an alternative hopeful transport solution I’ve not been able to find? How brave are you about taking a radical approach to transport?

As always, you can share thoughts in the comments below or email me.

5 thoughts on “A Vision for Transport”

  1. More and more people are investing in scythes! We’ve just bought 3 for our community project and our household already owns 2. That aside, I’ve been thinking about this too and have come to the same conclusion. No one would need a car, car parks would no longer be a thing – at least not in city centres. What could we do with all that space – some affordable housing maybe?

  2. Ian Davidson

    Robin. Keeping my comments brief; you are correct. Current policy lacks vision and ignores the benefits of private/car transport without which millions would live economically and socially poorer lives: disabled, elderly, families, folks not near a bus route/train station, shift workers, rural and island communities, females who feel safer in their own car etc. If the maligned car can be rehabilitated to be eco-friendly and hired instantly like a taxi then it would be a paradigm shift.

  3. If housing and workplaces did not require a commute by rail or bus if the people on the motorway swapped jobs with those driving in the opposite direction eliminating their commute we might avoid the need for transportation as we require it at present. Working from home will become more common eliminating the expense of commute and freeing up disposable income and quality time potential. The need for Commuting Transport needs should be phased out not encouraged. 🤔

    1. Ian Davidson

      Agreed. However the current planning framework is not fit for purpose. It has taken three years for my local authority local development plan to be finally adopted! It is out of date as insufficient consideration to the challenges of climate change, post covid etc. Scot Gov has now issued draft national plan 4; it is critical that this is developed to reflect the world as it now is and how we wish it to be; the plan must be fully adopted by say the end of 2022. Until the laws and planning guidance are changed, well within the competence of Scot Gov/SNP/Greens and this Parliament, local authorities are legally obliged to apply current laws and guidance. Developers are having a fire sale of Green Belt private housing developments; average three cars per 4/5 bedroom house with a few smaller “affordable” houses tucked away out of sight (and locally, with no access to any public transport!). Until the planning system gets real, then builders will keep building the wrong housing in the wrong locations, people will buy them and move in with their families, pets, 3/4 cars and spend most of their lives in their cars (not just for work but also shopping, culture etc pursuits in the big cities such as Glasgow) rather than use inadequate or non-existent public transport. If you don’t believe me then have a look at all the new housing developments in East Renfrewshire: M77/Maidenhill – new “village” of over 1k houses (they have built a primary school); Barrhead South: 1k houses built/planned; accompanying rail station delayed until 2023/24 or never! Local MSP? The Scot Gov Minister for Planning!

  4. Seems like someone has bought into the hype of autonomous vehicles and not really understood the issues.

    Making cars work autonomously on enclosed, predictable infrastructure is easy. Trains have done that in metro settings since the 1950s. Making cars work autonomously on city streets is what is known as an NP problem, the very sort of problem computers struggle to make.

    It also ignores a great deal of issues – how is demand dealt with? who maintains these cars and to what standards? who is responsible (legally) for the safety of these vehicles? where are they stored when they are not in use? and probably most importantly – where are you getting all the lithium for the batteries from?

    in urban environments, trams, metros and cycles simply cannot be beaten in terms of space and density of space required to capacity delivered. In rural environments sure there are needs for cars but that need does not usurp the need of the urban citizen in their own environment. Buses (electric or diesel) have no reason to be infrequent, a product of privatisation and cost savings, or unreliable, a consequence of congestion and deprioritisation.

    This article is a classic of the genre. You’re betting the house on a future which could potentially exist despite all of the above misgivings, issues and technological challenges, rather than starting now in transforming transport using technology which is readily available and mature. It’s the same argument as saying we shouldn’t invest in green energy as nuclear fusion is just round the corner. Please speak to literally anyone who knows about modern transport planning.

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