Listen to this article
A time traveller from the 1950s visiting London today might be surprised to find that the fundamental aspects of the public transport system have not changed dramatically.
Buses have had a design overhaul, but they are still flagged down by passengers at the side of the road. Trains continue to move along on steel rails, but station guards wave signal paddles instead of blowing whistles.
A big problem in modernising transport systems, particularly in the developed world, is dealing with ageing infrastructure, according to Lynne Goulding, an analyst at Arup, the engineering group.
Several countries are focusing on electrifying rail tracks to accommodate faster trains, including the UK, Germany and France, but it can be difficult to modernise existing infrastructure. In the UK, attempts to electrify some train routes have been hit by delays and overspending.
While the perception might be one of slow change since the 1950s, transport experts say there has been a lot of work behind the scenes in using technology to improve signalling systems and roadside infrastructure. Safety has improved dramatically over the past 50 years.
Not all modes of transport have been slow to alter over that time. Stephen Glaister, a transport specialist at Imperial College London and a former Transport for London board member, points to the considerable improvements made to the car. “It’s still got four wheels and is driven by a person, but otherwise it’s a completely different thing,” he notes. Its cost relative to average income has fallen and it is much safer. Road networks across the world have also greatly improved, Mr Glaister adds.
In central London these factors have played a part in cutting road capacity by about 30 per cent since 1996, figures from the city’s traffic agency show. Experts say politicians must either act or watch snarl-ups on London’s streets worsen — a problem made more pressing by the predicted growth in the capital’s population from 8.6m to nearer 10m by 2030. Mr Glaister says transport planners may have to come up with radical solutions, such as a network of underground roads to help ease congestion. Some cities have tried this, for instance Boston in the US with its “Big Dig” project, which cost at least 10 times its original budget. Other countries, such as China, have chosen to go overground and construct triple-deck roads.
The amount road capacity in central London has been cut since 1996
Most countries are working towards better connected and more efficient transport networks, using technology to improve their infrastructure. The internet is revolutionising the way in which passengers plan their journeys, while smart ticketing systems are helping shave seconds off the time it takes to get through a station. The “smart city” approach is a concept adopted by policymakers around the world, in the hope and expectation that digital technologies can be deployed to make cities both more efficient and liveable.
“I think technology”, says Arup’s Ms Goulding, “will be one of the biggest drivers of change in the transport sector. As technological change tends to be exponential and not linear, these things are rapidly progressing.”
The problem is how to integrate different modes of transport, such as rail, bicycle, walking and automotive, into one convenient, safe and sustainable system. Some cities are already making inroads into recreating themselves as places where vehicles are electric powered and emission free.
The port city of La Rochelle in south-western France has recently launched zero emission electric passenger boats for travel around its waterways and boasts solar-powered electric bikes. In the UK, Milton Keynes and Coventry are trialling the government’s autodrive programme, which will develop autonomous vehicle technologies and integrate driverless vehicles into existing urban environments.
In Asia, Singapore is expanding its underground system, almost doubling the size of the metro, to improve public transport on the island. It is also considering the introduction of autonomous vehicles trials as part of an effort to reduce private car ownership.
Number of taxi journeys sold by Sweden’s national rail carrier
Automation will play a big part in traffic management systems in which driverless cars, buses and lorries ease congestion problems on railway networks. “Ultimately we’ll see all of the systems talk to each other,” says Cameron Jones, chief commercial officer at UK-based software company SilverRail Technologies.
“You’ll have an app that will help you plan the most efficient journey, with each of the modes of transport seamlessly interacting with each other so that there isn’t a point of anxiety across that trip,” Mr Jones adds.
He points to SJ, Sweden’s government-owned passenger train operator, which works with taxi companies to enable passengers to book a full rail and cab journey in one go. The taxi company uses live data from the rail carrier to plan the pick-up from the station, putting an end to long queues at the taxi rank.
“Without being heavily marketed SJ sold almost 200,000 taxi journeys in 2014, which would be like selling almost 2m taxi journeys in the UK when considering relative market sizes,” says Mr Jones.
Ms Goulding believes technology will enable solutions for many transport problems, but concedes that the pace of development creates a problem in itself. “There is a real challenge that by the time it is built the technology is already obsolete,” she says.
As she adds: “At the moment everyone is looking at how to put WiFi on trains, but there’s already a technology called LiFi that is meant to be a much faster way of doing WiFi.”
Get alerts on Transport when a new story is published