Published on in TransportDigital Transformation

Public transport is a classic example of evolution over revolution – and, in some cases, slow evolution at that.

In the UK, intercity rail travel isn’t significantly faster than it was in 40 years ago.  Perhaps this is no surprise given the number of people travelling on the UK rail network has more than doubled in the same time frame. This hasn’t been helped by newer trains on the tracks and advances in signalling technology that can’t keep up with these ever-growing capacity requirements.

On the roads, capacity in the UK has increased from 208,300 miles of tarmac in 1977 to 246,700 in 2018 – an increase of 18.4%. In the same timeframe, the population of the UK has grown by an estimated 17.3%.  “Excellent”, I hear you say, “we’re staying ahead of the curve!”

But that’s not the whole picture.  The global population is increasingly living in urban areas; the UN figures project a further 2.5 billion people will reside in urban areas by 2050.  This need for space restricts the ability of traditional public transport modes (road and rail) to meet increasing demand.  The current planning and associated delays of HS2 shows the difficulties of clearing a tract of land long and wide enough through existing infrastructure for a new rail or road route into a city.

So are we now staring at a bleak future where every journey will be mired by a river of brake lights if we travel by car, and delays and overcrowding if we travel by train or bus?

Improving what we have

The UK has a rail infrastructure that dates back to the Victorian era. When it was built, it was the pride and joy of the nation, an engineering feat that both modernised and connected the country. But how many changes would a Victorian time traveller notice on today’s network?  Maybe fewer than we’d like to think.

Adding additional rails is expensive, time-consuming and complex, and already much work has been undertaken to increase the number of passengers that can be carried on the existing rails.  This has taken a number of forms, including longer trains, redesigned carriages and increases in the number of services. Many rail experts would argue that our current railway is now saturated, having hit the limits of train sizes and signalling capabilities.

On the roads, Highways England are making busy stretches of motorway smarter to allow the previously under-used hard shoulder to add capacity at peak times.  Remote monitoring and signage allow the pace of traffic to be decreased before it creates a jam, which in turn keeps traffic moving.  In vehicles, navigation systems are keeping an eye on the traffic ahead, and adjusting routes in real-time to make better use of the available roads.

But with the number of cars on our roads increasing, we’re running out of options. Converting a motorway’s hard shoulder only works once and slowing traffic only works up to a point. After this the inevitable traffic jam will bring misery to road users.

And the situation is set to get worse.  The megatrends of urbanisation, increasing population, and longer lives, will continue to increase the pressure on our transport networks.

We need to think about other options.

A cartoonist and a rocket scientist walked into a bar…

Where should we look for inspiration?  Well, one of the fathers of animation and a self-made internet millionaire-turned-car-maker and rocket scientist may not be the obvious choices, but they have both come up with some very interesting ideas.

Starting from humble roots, Walt Disney built an empire that has been keeping us entertained for more than 90 years.  Although best known for his animation, Disney was interested in improving people’s lives, and was a strong supporter of enterprise.  He was a man who liked to challenge the norm, and one of the best examples of this (outside of animation) is his plans for EPCOT – the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Disney’s original plan for EPCOT was a fully-fledged “next generation” city, which aimed to address many of the problems seen in cities at the time (and which have only got worse in the intervening years).  Residential districts were arranged close to industrial and office units, with “people-movers” in place to carry the public short distances.  Longer journeys, like those from the outlying residential areas into the shopping and commerce district in the centre, were accomplished via monorails operating high above the walkways and cycle ways.

The car was still king for long distance travel in Disney’s vision, but was kept out of the city.  This was achieved by moving the traffic underground, into a series tunnels which allowed cars, vehicles and road-freight to move around without impacting the pristine ground-level vista.

Sadly, his untimely death in 1966 led to the dilution of his ambitious plans into the theme park that was eventually opened in 1982.  The prototype “People Mover” remains in service in Walt Disney World as an attraction in its own right, as does the iconic Monorail which is ranked as the third most heavily used monorail in the world.

It could be argued that Elon Musk has had a more visible impact on transport.  With Tesla, he’s architected the drive to electric vehicles and provided a significant challenge for traditional automotive manufacturers.  But again, this is more evolution than revolution, albeit at pace.  The same can’t be said for Musk’s other transport-related ambitions.

Hyperloop is a concept developed by two of Musk’s organisations (Tesla and Spacex) and has been ‘open sourced’ to encourage others to implement the idea. Hyperloop promises to redefine high-speed rail, by transferring the ‘trains’ (which would be far smaller – think buses or smaller) into a vacuum tube.  By removing air resistance, the trains will be able to reach truly incredible speeds – potentially twice that of an airliner.

But it’s Musk’s Boring Company (who doesn’t love a good pun!) that really complements Disney’s EPCOT dream.  The vast majority of our transport solutions are two dimension – they operate over the surface of the earth.  But as we’ve already seen, ground-level real-estate is already heavily used.  If the cost of boring tunnels can be significantly reduced, the problem of transportation can be made three dimensional.  This has already proven to be very effective – the London Underground is a fantastic example, with tunnels reaching as far as 67m below sea level.

What can our planners learn

When we plan new infrastructure, we need to plan for expansion.  The rolling programme of Smart Motorways in the UK is made time-consuming by the need to rebuild many of the bridges along  routes – the foresight to allow for future growth would’ve made this much easier.

We also need to think three dimensionally – can we build above or below existing infrastructure to add the much needed capacity?  Electric vehicles make the prospect of driving in tunnels much more appealing, as it removes the need for extensive air purification and circulation mechanisms which potentially incentivises people to make the switch.

The Transit Elevated Bus concept, showcased as a working scale model at the 2016 Beijing International High-Tech Expo, moves public transport above the existing roads and traffic.  It’s essentially a vehicle as wide as two traffic lanes which straddles the road below to create a rolling tunnel for the cars underneath.  This is a fantastic idea increasing the use of the existing roads and ensuring public transport is not hindered by private traffic.

Finally, we should be bold in our consideration for modes of travel outside of the traditional.  I, for one, would love to see more monorails.  The autonomous pods at Terminal 5 are a modern take on the People Mover, offering greater flexibility and simpler track.  Electric scooters are popping up in cities around the world, giving people a convenient way of getting point-to-point quickly (but let’s not forget the humble bicycle is a great way of doing the same sort of journeys with the added benefit of exercise).

Commuting by hot air balloon

Rather than plan the future with the capabilities of today, would it not be better to plan for capabilities we’ve yet to achieve?  Let’s challenge the industry and entrepreneurs to come up with innovations that drive towards a clearly defined purpose and allow prizes to push progress.  This approach was a great success at driving innovation in aviation in the early 1900s.  More recently, the XPRIZE encouraged a race for the first private space-flight.

A lot of people called Walt Disney a dreamer – and what’s wrong with that?  We need people like Walt Disney and Elon Musk to make radical suggestions, so our existing thinking is continually challenged.  How else are we going to move forward?  I’d really love to be in the room when these two futurists discuss public transport.

So maybe the next time you read about a crazy idea like commuting via hot air balloon, or journeys into London by autonomous hovercraft, don’t dismiss it out of hand. There might be kernel of an idea there that could bring about a revolution in public transport.

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Jason Cunningham

Jason Cunningham

Jason started his IT career straight out of university when he joined Fujitsu in 1999 as a developer.He left the organisation in 2002 to work for SEGA, before re-joining Fujitsu in 2007.In 2014, he was recognised by his peers for his technical excellence and admitted to the Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer Scheme.

His early career focussed on applications development where he worked on a diverse set of projects in retail, online gaming, and government.He then progressed into systems architecture, before becoming an Account CTO.In this role, he’s worked on a number of large accounts including the Home Office and the UK Border Force.Over the last three years, Jason has been focussed on the Transport sector where he has worked alongside many of the Transport Operators in the UK.

Jason lives in the suburbs of Reading with this wife, daughter, and son.They take up most of his time outside of work, but he does enjoy spending his Sunday evenings watching his favourite NFL team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jason Cunningham

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