Pointing the way to the future: how technology will change transport

As part of Civil Service World’s Digital Transformation special edition, we asked sector experts to share their insight on how a broad range of near-term advances in technology will transform the way public services are delivered.

Photo: PA

By Marcus Enoch

31 Mar 2020

In this entry, Marcus Enoch is a professor of transport strategy in the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering at Loughborough University, looks at the changes that could come

How are digital technologies currently used in the mobility sector?

Compared with some other sectors, like communications for instance, transport has been quite slow to adopt digital technologies – but this situation is now changing, with many new companies now entering the marketplace. Thus we are starting to see transport planners and operators engaging with providers of data (for example, from electronic payments, mobile phones, Bluetooth, wifi, and a whole range of sensors) to monitor, evaluate and hopefully improve transport system performance.

What is the potential for digital to transform services, and what challenges could this solve? 

Digital services could potentially revolutionise how transport is delivered in two ways. First, it could remove the need for a significant proportion of it through next-generation videoconferencing tools – in which case it would cease to be transport. This is something long expected but so far not quite realised, but this may change quite suddenly in light of recent social responses to things like climate change agenda and Covid-19.

Secondly, digital services could potentially revolutionise how transport is delivered by allowing users to directly communicate with transport providers in near-real time – something which has not been possible until now. This could see the current operator-led paradigm being gradually replaced with a user-led model. Here, transport services will be more tailored to the needs of individual customers. They could be more precisely priced according to the attributes requested by the user, the quality of service provided, a person’s ability to pay for it and the net social cost to society of that trip.

More comprehensive data will also enable transport operators to use machine-learning techniques to predict (and deal with) operational issues before they arise, and planners and policymakers to make more informed decisions around subsidies and investment at the strategic level.

Taken together, pervasive personalisation, precise pricing, powerful predictions and primed policy should ensure that services only run at optimal loadings (neither too full nor too empty), and where and when the infrastructure is able to accommodate them. Under this dream scenario, overcrowding would no longer exist, congestion and traffic delays would be designed out, and emissions and carbon dioxide would fall dramatically.

What will be the key factors in facilitating this transformation?

There are significant barriers to such a future. First, the technology to deliver the required changes to payment, information and timetabling systems to integrate them within a single system has proved more complicated than was initially thought – and will likely require more investment by the industry.

Second, there is a strong traditionalist culture among a large part of the transport sector that has remained almost unchanged in the 200 years since the first buses ran in Paris during the 1820s. This could form part of the reason why the taxi and bus markets have come under such pressure from new modes like Uber over the last few years.

Third, the regulatory framework would benefit from being reset. Currently, questions as to how an operator, service, route, vehicle or driver is registered and by which organisation, as well as eligibility criteria for grants or subsidies, or VAT exemptions on ticket sales are entirely mode dependent. Instead, perhaps a cross-modal treatment of these institutional components would be more able to cope with the potential opportunities provided by digital services, particularly as more regulatory dimensions begin to emerge – such as around data management and privacy.

Finally, there will be political and public acceptability challenges, particularly if painful choices around transport system efficiency, capacity, access, and pricing are not to be avoided.

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