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The future will be different, so where's the wisdom in major infrastructure planning?

Martina Juvara
03 February 2017
Martina Juvara, Director, URBAN Silence
Martina Juvara, Director, URBAN Silence


We may not be able to predict what the future of transport will be, but we can be sure of what it will not be. And we can be wiser. There is no need to scan deeply into the horizon to spot the green shoots of change: they are everywhere to see. We may not be sure exactly what shape it will take, but we know that the revolution in transportation and travel habits is going to be big.

Increased robotics are already in every new vehicle: assisted parking, sensors, automated efficiency, and even software to cheat on emissions… There is no vehicle manufacturer in the world that is not investing (and believing) in innovation and automation. There will be winners and losers of this technology race, of course, and we are unsure if the deep transition will be before or just after 2025. But we all know it is coming up fast.

In Britain, we are a nation of innovators and sceptical people: so most of the experimentation is quietly done. Yet, the UK Government has published a Code of Practice on testing autonomous vehicles, encouraged and funded experimentation, chosen four cities where street testing is permitted, and so on. Did you know that the Ordnance Survey is developing 3D data-rich maps to assist future autonomous vehicle navigation in our cities?

Did you know that the Ordnance Survey is developing 3D data-rich maps to assist future autonomous vehicle navigation in our cities?

The social changes that will spur rapid transformation are very evident and consistent throughout the world. For example, owning a car is no longer a status symbol for the generation below 30, so much so that in 2015 the chief executive of Renault declared that the imminent future is one of car users at best, and definitely not car owners.

Miles travelled by private cars are reducing all over the world, especially among the young (a 23% reduction in the US between 2001-2009), the richer and better educated (New Zealand research), and people working where alternatives are good – like London and Manchester. Even in car-orientated countries such as Dubai, the Metro reached full capacity less then ten years after opening.

Historically, blindness to infrastructure changes has cost us very dear. Canals in Britain fuelled the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and were considered indispensable for economic growth, but just a century later they could not compete with the railways. Take for example the Chelmer and Blackwater Canal: it opened just a few years before the railways and was economically doomed from the very first day. Or St Katharine’s Docks in London: built in 1828 at enormous cost, ignoring the impending changes in cargo shipping. The dockyards lost money from the start and were the first to be scrapped and repurposed for leisure. Back then, these investments were made looking at what had been successful before, and disregarded all the signs of impending change.

Are we not doing, right now, just the same thing as our Victorian forefathers?

London is arguably leading the way in sustainable transport and policy, in the country and on the global stage. However, the Mayor’s Infrastructure Plan to 2050 is vague on transport innovation and silent on recommendations. The London SATURN traffic model broadly speaking predicts increases in car use and ignores technological change or emerging new behaviour (car sharing uptake for example). This might provide a ‘safe approach’ against reducing road capacity too quickly, but it overlooks possible dramatic change that is very likely to impact long-term investments. 

Scheme assessments and ‘business cases’ are still prepared using WebTAG methods developed in 1998 and approved in 2003: before smart phones, before open data, and before cycling and car sharing. Is this the best approach for schemes that will open after 2025?

A couple of examples. HS2 stations will not be operational before 2030, yet integration with street transport is planned as if nothing will have changed by then. Both the Silvertown Tunnel and the Lower Thames Crossing are being planned for the traffic of today: they are expensive, controversial and not likely to open before 2025-2030 – right on time to catch the storm of the transport revolution. Just like the Chelmer Canal… 

The new Commission on Travel Demand points out very clearly the irrational institutional inertia of our assessment methods.

Obviously, we cannot sit-out investment until the situation is clearer, but we should not snub the imminent transformation ahead either. We should prepare and pave the way.

First of all, we should agree a common vision for what we want as citizens out of this revolution. As a master planner and urban strategist, I believe the only desirable future is one with more people and fewer vehicles on the roads: streets of beauty, comfort and interaction – not another nightmare of road clutter and paraphernalia. 

Secondly, we should have a national set of ambitious scenarios for testing any project with delivery post-2025: if the Government supports and funds innovation in technology and manufacturing, it should also welcome new methods that prepare our cities for the change. WebTAG, or any other assessment methods, should assess any big investment both as today and as an agreed future scenario.

And finally, every project should be future-proofed and designed with a ‘legacy plan’ for the ‘post-standard car era’ – perhaps tunnels without mega ventilation shafts, toll roads without gantries, stations without car parks.

The best way to have the future we want is to start preparing for it now. The biggest mistake we can do is to just wait and make expensive, wasteful, and wrong investments. 

Martina Juvara is the director of URBAN Silence, a cutting-edge company of urban strategists.

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