Smarter Commuting: How the Future of Transport Will Shape Our Cities

Few industries are changing and developing quite as fast as transport, and in the coming decades our transport infrastructure is going to be tested to the extremes. It’s also going to completely change the way we live and work in our towns and cities, impacting every aspect of modern life. So what could be on the cards for the future of transport?

We want to take a look at the bigger picture to explore some of the challenges the transport industry may be facing in the coming years, how they may be overcome and how the future of transport could affect the way we live and work in our urban spaces.  Transport firms will need to address three key areas when it comes to improving transportation in the cities of tomorrow: convenience, costs and commuting times. Here we’ll unpick how they could be tackled and the knock-on effects they will have on other aspects of city life.

Convenience

Above many things, people value convenience.  When it comes to travel, whether for work or socialising, the ability to walk out the front door and quickly hop on a bus or train or into a car makes life easier.  As more and more people around the world are choosing to live in cities, however, urban spaces are becoming more congested and more polluted. By September 2018 there were 38.4 million vehicles registered for use on British roads, with 31.6 million of them cars.  Countless studies have shown that when it comes to commuting, it’s the first and last mile of a journey which takes the most amount of time, largely because these are the most built up and congested parts of a route, with the middle section made up of more free-flowing motorways, A-roads or bypasses.

In order to persuade people to ditch their cars and take to ride-sharing or public transport, these options will need to appeal as more convenient.  That could mean creating more transport hubs such as bus depots, bus stops, train stations and rapid, easy-to-use ride hailing services. The seeds of change are certainly already there.

Around the world, forward thinking transport companies are already trialling driverless buses and shuttles, with the aim of strengthening public transport in those all-important first and last miles.  In Switzerland, for instance, bus company Trapeze has been experimenting with autonomous electric vehicles which connect people from their homes to major transport hubs. Their Chief Executive has described this technology as the ‘backbone of mobility’ for the smart cities of tomorrow, making their vehicles an attractive alternative to being stuck in traffic behind the wheel of a car.

One further thing to consider is that Millennials and younger generations are said to value experiences over ‘stuff’, perhaps making them less materialistic than older members of the workforce.  Owning a personal car used to be seen as a status symbol, a sign that you had ‘made it’ in life. If the workforce of tomorrow places less value on ownership and more on convenience and user experience, our century-old love affair with the car may start to tail off naturally.

Costs

To start, it’s interesting to look at where the money you currently spend on your train fare is going.  In January 2019, the Rail Delivery Group increased train fares by 3.1% and there was much outcry among passengers worried about just how that money was being spent.  On the back of timetable disruption and delays to major upgrades, people were understandably concerned that the cost of their season ticket wasn’t being squandered.

And so the Rail Delivery Group offered up a breakdown which showed that for every ticket bought in 2018, 25% went on staffing costs (including drivers, ticketing staff, cleaners, station operators), 13% on train leasing, 12% on the track and infrastructure, 8% in payments to government, 5% on fuel and 35% on other overheads such as track and train maintenance.  The final 2% was profits for the train operators.

Major future investment is set to come not from ticketing, but from the taxpayer and private investment.  In order to make the train a more appealing prospect, however, the high cost of a ticket will have to be addressed and made more affordable for greater numbers.  When it comes to the feasibility of rail travel for the masses, other factors need to be taken into account. It’s a well-known phenomenon that if you’re lucky enough to own a home within a few minutes’ walk of a train or Tube station, you see a marked increase in the value of your property.  As this report from estate agents Savills has shown, homes within 2km of good transport infrastructure can command a premium of 22% above those which aren’t.

A nearby commuting hub makes a home seem like a more desirable investment opportunity, but that means those on lower incomes find themselves priced out of the housing market in certain areas and priced out of the train as a valid commuting option.  If ticket prices could be reduced and the number of commuting hubs increased, there could be a natural correction and levelling out in both the housing market and the availability of train travel. In that respect, addressing ticket prices could act to democratise both transport and housing in our towns and cities.

But how could it be done?  While there was widespread uproar about the prospect of driverless trains, that certainly looks like one route the rail industry could take and may become more feasible as the technology becomes smarter and safer.  Self-driving trains could cut the 25% of each ticket which currently goes on staff. While the human element is unlikely to be phased out completely any time soon, we are likely to see it decrease in the coming decades.

There has also been a suggestion that scrapping High Speed 2 and reinvesting the funds in more local and regional services could be an alternative way to go.  With big investment projects such as Crossrail and HS2 sucking funding from other services, it seems likely that the backlash will force future governments to look again at improving the existing infrastructure rather than ploughing money into new projects.

Either way, cutting train fares and the cost of the daily commute could see more people abandoning the roads in favour of rail, and that could impact on commuting times and overall productivity.

Commuting Times

Let’s take a look at the current landscape before we dig deeper into the future of commuting times.  Figures published in November 2018 by the Office for National Statistics found that the majority of the commutes in the UK last fifteen minutes or less, with commutes of over an hour being fairly uncommon. 

For those who do commute for over an hour, it’s likely that they can afford and are incentivised to do so by a higher paid job.  It’s something of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. While not all city workers will choose to move further afield, a higher salary often means they can afford and expect a higher standard of living, and that often means moving into the greener, leafier suburbs or beyond to live and raise a family.  That in turn means a longer commute, particularly as our cities grow and commuting becomes harder.

As with the democratising effect of introducing lower ticket prices and more transport hubs, so we could see a democratising effect on housing and jobs from cutting commuting times.  If more homes were within easy reach of good public transport links then house prices would level out, and those on lower wages could find that they can cast their nets wider when it comes to looking for higher paid work or work more suited to their skillsets.  Being able to travel a greater distance in a shorter space of time would provide access to a wider jobs pool and better, more affordable housing outside the city centres.

It’s also worth noting that in the past few years, even as we work longer hours, overall productivity has been on the decrease.  For many, commuting is ‘wasted time’ and leaves them drained even before the working day has begun. It stands to reason, therefore, that by cutting the down-time spent on travel, people will almost certainly become more productive during the time they do spend at work.

Final Thoughts

Cost, convenience and commuting times are going to be the three key sticking points which the transport industry will need to seriously consider in the future.  Persuading people to give up their cars in favour of more public transport will not be an easy challenge, nor will persuading city-dwellers to fully trust the automated technology we are all going to become more reliant on.

As that technology becomes smarter, however, the obstacles seem less insurmountable.  Self-driving cars, buses and trains are all on the horizon. While we’re not anticipating mass roll-out in the coming months or even years, they will certainly be a more common sight within the next decade.

The future of transport is all about democratising our towns, cities and other urban spaces, making them smarter, more affordable and accessible for all.  It’s a large but worthy ambition, and one which the transport industry is already taking steps to address.

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