Andrew Curry writes:
I was asked to speak at an event held last week in Leuven in Belgium on The Future of Transport by Said El Khadraoui, an MEP who’s a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism. I went because it was a chance to revisit a large scenarios project I directed a few years ago, for the UK government’s Foresight project, on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems, and because some of the other speakers were at the forefront of work on intelligent transport systems. (And not, of course, because Leuven is the home of Stella Artois).
Transport is a problem because its carbon emissions keep on growing – unlike every other sector – and because it is almost completely dependent on fossil fuel to power it, against a backdrop of expected long-term price increases. One speaker argued that given the carbon impact and the risks, and given also the level of external costs generated by transport, it is likely that transport – especially car use and road freight – is simply too cheap.
The argument which I teased out of the Foresight scenarios was that one of the problems is that we confuse the benefits of mobility with the benefits of access; a century of increasing car use has made services and facilities more distant, and therefore harder to access by anything other than a car. The long-run solution is to redesign the built environment to reverse this process. This takes a generation or more, although it is starting to happen; there are more food shops closer to homes, and road space, certainly in towns, is being taken away from cars across Europe.
In the meantime, technology offers both carrots and sticks. The combination of wireless technology, open data, and smartphones opens up the possibility of applications which make public transport more attractive, and alternatives to car ownership more feasible. This requires more than just better, live information. It also requires the smartphone or a smartcard to be a form of authentication (not necessarily identification), of permission, and preferably of payment as well. The stick is some form of road pricing; the technology is well advanced, and the reasons for implementing it more pressing. The Netherlands is likely to be the first, although Belgium is not far behind. One other issue that’s becoming more prominent is that of the noise impact of traffic.
Leuven is a university town with quite a lot of industry associated with it (a Belgian equivalent of Oxford, perhaps). One of the speakers conjured up a vision of the city using technology to manage its transport issues better – everything from guiding traffic and managing traffic flows, to a drivers’ reserved parking space, to integrating information about different transport systems, to supporting car sharing, to helping people use bikes or walking instead of travelling by car.