Charles Musselwhite has edited a new book on transport and travel in later life. I have a chapter on Future Transport Technologies for an Ageing Society. I discuss how the new digital technologies are affecting both the transport system based on civil and mechanical engineering technologies, and how we choose to travel. There are a number of ways in which innovations would be of benefit to those in later life, and a number of policy approaches that would help achieve such benefits.
In pre-Budget briefing, the Chancellor expressed enthusiasm for government investment to help get driverless cars on UK roads by 2021. In this he followed the example of his predecessor, George Osborne, who was keen that Britain takes bold decisions to ensure that it leads the world in new technologies and infrastructure. The Budget was followed by the launch of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which featured new modes of mobility as one of four Grand Challenges, and stated that the Government wants to see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021.
There are two related reasons why the Government might attempt to ‘pick a winner’ of this kind: industrial policy and transport policy. If, as George Osborne claimed, driverless cars represent ‘the most fundamental change to transport since the invention of the internal combustion engine’, then support for autonomous vehicles should form part of our industrial strategy as well as our transport policy.
The Government has indeed been active in supporting trials and future deployment of driverless vehicles on British roads. Projects are underway in Bristol, Coventry, Greenwich and Milton Keynes; R&D is being funded; Codes of Practice for on-road testing published; and legislation introduced in Parliament to ensure that vehicle insurance covers both the motorist when driving as well as the car in automated mode.
There are two routes to driverless vehicles. The evolutionary approach, pursued by all the main international auto manufacturers, offers to relieve drivers of tedious tasks, for instance by means of adaptive cruise control, which regulates the speed and space to the vehicle ahead. The revolutionary route, pioneered by Google (now branded Waymo), dispenses with the driver entirely. Other US businesses with disruptive approaches are active developing driverless technologies, including Tesla and Uber.
With the enormous worldwide effort underway, it is going to be difficult for the UK projects to make much impact – unless they have some breakthrough technologies under test, of which there is no public evidence. Nevertheless, Government support for driverless vehicles might be justified if the impact on the transport system were clearly beneficial.
Autonomous vehicles would need to be demonstrably safer than their human-driven counterparts to be publicly acceptable. This should be achievable, given that most crashes are caused by human error. So we may expect a safety benefit from driverless cars, and lower insurance costs. Beyond that, it seems likely that there will be two main impacts.
First, replacing the human driver with a robot would lessen the cost of licensed taxis and private hire vehicles, enhancing their competitiveness, which is why Uber is so keen on this technology. Such robotic vehicles would fill the present gap in service provision that exists between high-capacity, low cost public transport and low-capacity, high cost taxis.
Proponents of public transport are anxious lest demand for efficient high-occupancy buses is reduced. On the other hand, the ready availability of robotic taxis would reduce the attractions of individually owned cars, and robotic shared-use minibuses would allow door-to-door conveyance at reasonable charges. So we can envisage a future in which the availability of shared-use autonomous vehicles fosters a shift away from private ownership in urban centres, with a beneficial impact on traffic congestion.
Second, private ownership is likely to remain popular in suburbs and beyond. Driverless cars will allow new options, for instance sending the vehicle home unoccupied, after delivering the occupant to their workplace, for use by others in the household. This could reduce car ownership per household, but would increase vehicle-miles travelled. Another option would be ‘parking on the move’ – programming your car to cruise round the block while you do your shopping. However, such unoccupied vehicles would add to traffic and worsen congestion in urban areas, so would need to be regulated, to give priority to occupied vehicles.
The main problem of the transport system is road traffic congestion. The test for any new technology is its likely impact on congestion. For autonomous vehicles, there are many possible impacts, both positive and negative. In the absence of evidence from deployment at scale, the outcome is uncertain. So the transport policy case for support for driverless vehicles remains unclear. Yet that lack of clarity justifies cautious support of development, testing and deployment, to understand better the implications of what could yet turn out to be an important innovation.
Traditional transport technologies based on mechanical and civil engineering develop quite slowly. In contrast, digital technologies are fast and disruptive. Autonomous vehicles are where the digital hare has to ride on the back of the mechanical tortoise, with as yet uncertain consequences for the speed of travel.
A version of this blog appeared in The Conversation on 21 November 2017.
This was a worthwhile exercise that stimulated thought and discussion amongst the expert members. The report will contribute to the actions that will be needed to implement the plans of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. Some of the toughest issues concern the management of demand for both road space and kerb space while maintaining traffic flow and improving the quality of place in a city growing at the rate of about 100,000 people a year.
Travel time and congestion
Britain’s National Travel Survey has been monitoring our travel patterns for the past 40 years. One remarkable finding is that average travel time has held steady over this period at about 375 hours per person per year, close to an hour a day. There are only 24 hours in the day and many activities that have to be fitted in, leaving an hour or so for daily travel. The history of travel is largely about travelling faster as incomes have grown and technologies advanced, allowing us to go further in the same amount of time.
This travel time constraint is an important influence on road traffic congestion. As traffic builds up, speeds fall and trips take longer. This puts pressure on time available for travel and some road users change their plans – travelling at a less busy time, or to a different destination (where options exist, as for shopping), or by a different mode, or not to travel at all. So congestion is self-regulating, and gridlock is rare, particularly when an urban traffic management system is used to adjust the timing of traffic signals to make best use of road space, as in London.
Road traffic congestion occurs in areas of high population density and high car ownership. There is insufficient road capacity to accommodate all the trips that might be made. Many potential road users are deterred by the prospect of time delays. These suppressed trips mean that congestion is difficult to mitigate since measures aimed at reducing car use in effect create space for drivers previously deterred.
Policies that it is hoped would reduce congestion by getting people out of their cars tend to disappoint. Promoting walking and cycling is good for health and for the environment but has little impact of urban car use. Increasing road capacity induces more traffic, hence the maxim that you can’t build your way out of congestion, which we know from experience to be generally true.
London pioneered congestion charging, aimed at reducing demand for car use in the central area. On introduction in 2003 there was a marked impact – both car use and delays were reduced. But when the charge was increased from £5 to £8 in 2005, there was no further effect, and over the next few years delays reverted to the previous level. So while congestion charging has generated useful amounts of revenue for investment in London’s transport system, it has been disappointing as a means of reducing congestion – because of the high potential demand from drivers willing to pay the current charge of £11.50. It seems likely that a substantially higher charge would be needed to make a significant impact on congestion in a city like London where many have high incomes.
When road users are asked why congestion is a problem, their main concern is the uncertainty of journey time. While it is difficult to reduce general delays arising from congestion, new technologies are able to lessen uncertainty. The route planning offered by smartphone apps such as Google Maps and Waze, and similar in-vehicle devices, takes account of traffic congestion in real time and proposes less congested routes, making better use of the road network. These apps also estimate journey time, which helps decide the best time to start a trip.
Performance of the route guidance apps would be enhanced by collaboration with road authorities. Transport for London’s 2017 Business Plan announced a new partnership with Google on its Waze technology that will see Google use TfL’s open data, while TfL uses the Waze crowd-sourced data on road conditions to help manage traffic around incidents and road closures.
These new technologies are helping us make better use of the road system within the limited time we can allow ourselves for daily travel.
The Mayor of London published a draft Transport Strategy in June. The consultation period has just finished. Generally, the draft is sensible in its intentions, emphasising the important aims of healthy streets and people, good public transport, and accommodating a growing population and economy.
One stated objective is to achieve 80% of all trips by walking, cycling or public transport by 2041. However, while reduction in the share of journeys by car is desirable, it would be very ambitious to achieve this aim.
Car mode share has been falling in London, from 50% of all trips (driver and passenger) in 1993 to 36% in 2015. I projected that on existing policies it would fall to about 30% by 2040. This is happening because the capacity of the road network prevents traffic growth, and population growth therefore results in a decline of car mode share. However, a reduction to 20% car mode share of trips could be difficulty for the following reasons:
- Walking in London has remained at 24% of all trips consistently for the past 20 years. Walking is the slowest mode, other than for very short journeys, and could therefore be difficult to increase.
- Cycling is growing, but from a low base. However, it is difficult to get people out of cars onto bikes. Copenhagen has excellent cycling infrastructure and a strong tradition of cycle use, which comprises 30% of all trips. However, car use at 33% is not very different from London. Walking and public transport use are much lower than in London. Crowding on public transport is likely to be reduced by promoting cycling, but there may not be much impact on car use.
- Growth of bus use will tend to be constrained by traffic congestion, and growth of rail use by crowding and the cost of investment in new routes.
- Reducing carriageway available for cars, for instance by allocating more road space to pedestrians and to bus and cycle lanes, would tend to reduce car use, but would not reduce congestion and would be detrimental for goods deliveries.
Transport for London has refused to renew Uber’s licence as a private hire operator after expiry of its current licence on 30 September, on the grounds that Uber lacks corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues that have potential public safety and security implications (more detail available). Uber is appealing against this decision. Thus far more than 700,000 people have signed an online petition in support of Uber.
The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has endorsed TfL’s decision, but has recognised the popularity of Uber and has said that there is a place in London for all private hire companies that play by the rules and that he wants to help support innovative businesses in London and to create a vibrant and safe taxi and private hire market. The Mayor is consulting on his draft Transport Strategy, which has the ambition to reduce car use to 20% of all trips by 2040. One reason why car ownership and use in London is on a downward trend is that there are alternatives to the private car, Uber and the like as well as buses and trains.
3.5m Londoners use Uber via its smartphone app and more than 40,000 licensed drivers work for the company. While there have been criticisms of a number aspects of aspects of Uber’s operations, it is evident that this innovative service meets a real mobility need. Its virtues include the clear location and timing of the arriving vehicle with a named driver, the ability to rate the driver after the trip, no need to pay by cash or card, and applicability of the same app throughout London and to all cities that Uber serves. These attractions, together with relatively low fares, account for the success of Uber in competition with black cabs and local minicabs.
TfL’s refusal to renew Uber’s licence on grounds of safety and security seems at odds with the popularity of the service amongst Londoners. Uber must have a fair chance of modifying the decision on appeal to the court or in negotiation. But if not, others will seize the opportunity to step in. The drivers and their cars are there, as are the smartphones waiting to be loaded with new apps. There are other platforms in London such as Gett and mytaxi, (both for black cabs at present), and it is reported that Uber’s main competitor in the US, Lyft, is thinking about coming to London.
An important question is whether a single platform would tend to be dominant on account of economies of scale and scope – spreading the overhead costs across the greatest number of users and providing the fastest response times. Or whether stable competition between a number of providers could be achieved, as they compete for both clients and drivers by offering attractive terms to both. Lyft has been growing market share in New York at Uber’s expense. The New Economics Foundation has proposed ‘Khan’s Cars’, a mutually-owned, publicly-regulated alternative to Uber.
Another question is the sustainable level of fares for services provided by these platforms, which would need to be sufficiently high to attract drivers but low enough to be competitive with conventional taxis and minicabs. The app-based platforms such as UberPool allow customers to share journeys with other going in the same direction at lower fares – a source of competitive advantage as well as a means of increasing vehicle occupancy, which is helpful for efficient use of the road network.
For the longer term, the possibility of driverless vehicles offers scope for substantial cost reduction for robotic taxis. This could allow population of the vacant space between high capacity, low fare public transport offering stop-to-stop or station-to-station service, and low capacity, high fare taxis offering door-to-door journeys.
The National Infrastructure Commission has sought evidence on how the deployment of intelligent traffic systems could help optimise the road network. I sent a response, found here Metz NIC traffic management 1-9-17
My argument is that we need to move beyond traffic management using traffic signals to management involving collaboration between public sector road authorities and the private sector suppliers of digital maps and route guidance apps, such as Google Maps and Waze. These apps have become very popular for turn-by-turn route guidance that can take account of, and help avoid, traffic congestion and provide estimates of journey time before setting out. These features help tackle the main problem of traffic congestion which is journey time uncertainty.
I would expect that collaboration between public and private sectors would improve both the experience for road users and the efficiency of network operations.
In late July the Government published its Plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations, to reduce these below the statutory limit. Publication was met by considerable criticism that the Plan lacked urgency and effectively dumped the problem on the most affected local authorities, which would be required to implement Clean Air Zones (CAZ).
An accompanying 155-page Technical Report included, on its final page, new estimates of the economic benefits from reducing damage to health through measures to reduce NO2. Remarkably, these new estimates were very substantially below those that had been published in the Technical Report of May 2017 that accompanied the consultation preceding the Plan. For instance, the previous estimated health benefit of a further 21 CAZs was £3.6bn, but now is £620m – an 80% reduction.
This huge reduction was attributed to new advice from the independent experts of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP), which had found it difficult to disentangle the impacts of specific pollutants, in this case NO2, from that of the whole mix of traffic related pollutants.
COMEAP’s previous advice recommended a central coefficient of 1.025 per 10ug/m3 NO2, which means that for every 10ug/m3 increase in NO2 concentration, the increase in mortality risk would be 2.5%. The revised advice now recommends a coefficient of 1.023 for traffic-related pollution; but COMEAP also recommends that when measures are primarily targeting NO2 emissions this coefficient should be adjusted to account for possible overlap between the direct impacts of small particulates and NO2. Applying their recommended adjustment, the resulting coefficient used for the analysis is 1.0092.
My enquiries of the Government’s Joint Air Quality Unit elicited the confirmation that overall the updated NO2 damage costs for road transport are approximately 80% lower than those used at consultation. This splits into roughly 60-65% resulting from the revised COMEAP advice and the remaining c.15-20% resulting from the other updates such as new dispersion modelling and population data. The JAQU confirmed that the reduction in the road transport NO2 damage cost primarily reflects a reduction in the estimated mortality impact associated with NO2 alone.
There has been widespread interest and concern about the health impacts of roadside air pollution over the past year and more. So it is surprising to learn of such a substantial downward revisions of official estimates of health impact. However, the relevance for policy is as yet unclear.
Current policy is driven by the need to avoid exceeding statutory limits for NO2 concentration laid down in a EU Directive that applies uniformly to all regions of the Community, in which context the scale of health benefits from remedial measures is not relevant. However, Britain is to leave the EU, which may open the possibility of regulation of air quality based on UK targets set to reflect the balance of benefits in relation to costs. A down rating of health benefits would then be relevant, particularly given the expected reductions in pollutants from improved vehicle technology and from the introduction of electric propulsion. Whether the Government would be willing to propose targets to reflect UK conditions remains to be seen – it may depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and on a judgement about the politics of air pollution.
A version of this post was published in The Conversation on 30 August 2017
The Department for Transport publishes passenger numbers for the English light rail systems, shown in the Figure. What is striking is the very different growth rates: buoyant for London’s Docklands Light Rail and Tramlink, and for the systems in Manchester and Nottingham; but relatively static elsewhere – West Midlands, Sheffield and Tyne & Wear.
Urban light rail offers speedy and reliable travel compared to cars and buses on congested roads. In a growing economy, we expect its popularity to grow, as we see in London and Manchester.
The light rail passenger number trends bear upon the general question of whether transport investment can foster economic growth, or whether it follows it. The different patterns observed tends to suggest that urban rail investment can contribute to existing economic growth but may not in itself stimuate lift-off.
It is conventional to value transport investments by estimating the time savings to users, which are multiplied by a value of time derived from Stated Preference studies, essentially survey questions that ask people to trade off time against money. A major re-estimation of the value of travel time commissioned by the Department for Transport prompted me to review the appropriateness of this methodology.
I have long been concerned with the use of travel times savings. The National Travel Survey shows that average travel time has not changed over the past 40 years, during which period many £billions have been invested in the transport system, based on the supposed value of time savings. The NTS findings show that there are no time savings in the long run, the relevant perspective for investment in long-lived infrastructure. The real benefit of such investment is to improve access to land that can be developed to accommodate a growing population and boost the economy. A good example is the regeneration of London’s Docklands made possible by rail investments. So we need an approach to investment appraisal that focuses on the spatial impact, given that the outcome is additional movement of people and goods through space.
I have a paper just published on this topic. Get in touch if you have difficulty in accessing the full paper firstname.lastname@example.org
Lord Wolfson offered a prize worth £250,00 for the best proposal in response to the question: ‘How can we pay for better, safer, more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and the environment’.
The winner was Gergely Raccuja, a recent UCL graduate, now a transport planner with Amey Consulting. His proposal has the merit of simplicity: replace Fuel Duty and Vehicle Excise Duty, receipts from which are declining as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, with a per-mile charge that would depend on a vehicle’s weight (reflecting the damage caused to the road) and emissions (damage to the environment). The charge would be collected by the insurance companies, the new charge being in effect a supplement to the insurance premium.
The impact of congestion caused by a vehicle is captured in a crude way by a distance-related charge. However, the opportunity to relate the charge to the level of congestion was not taken because of the perception that it would be unpopular and hence prevent the new charging scheme being adopted.
Some of the other finalists for the prize proposed schemes involving charging that reflected in part the contribution of vehicle users to congestion, but these were not favoured by the judges.
It is very welcome that a new entrant to the transport planning profession was the prize winner, with a relatively simple proposal. But is it likely to be taken up? My sense is that implementation would not be seen as worth the effort and upheaval. Perhaps the main advantage is that electric vehicles would contribute to the costs of the road system, but for that purpose the proposal might be applied to EVs only, leaving Fuel Duty in place for vehicles with internal combustion engines.
The main shortcoming of the prize-winning proposal is the failure to address the problem of road traffic congestion and how it might be mitigated by charging. Public perceptions are important, of course, but I found it odd that there is no mention of London congestion charging, which has proved quite acceptable.
Any change to how we pay for roads should take the opportunity to ameliorate road traffic congestion, which is the biggest problem of the transport system. Arguably, the question set for the prize was misconceived, with its opening emphasis on ‘How can we pay for….’. It might have been better to ask ‘How can we achieve better, safer, more reliable roads….’