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Future mobility impacts

Future mobility options could play a significant role in tackling transport's carbon, health and social challenges says Giles Perkins, Head of Future Mobility, WSP UK, in conversation with Juliana O'Rourke. The key is thinking about future mobility holistically

16 October 2019


Digital connectivity is the 'golden thread' in the future mobility agenda, enabling new business models, new forms of accessing and using services. But one of the key things that's missing in the transport narrative to date is how we embed transport in everything that we do. 'Each part of the existing and future mobility mix needs to be customer-centric; to be tailored to individual needs.

'The sweet spot for change lies in removing frictions and mapping possible change to customer needs across the transport ecosystem,' says Perkins. 'It's about improving customer expectations, reducing friction in the system and tackling stress. A key aim is delivering improved outcomes for users, service operators and, importantly, asset owners. A second, closely linked to this, is the need to ensure that technology is only introduced where it solves a real problem or contributes to a better end-solution, not for its own sake.'

Giles Perkins, Head of Future Mobility, WSP UK will be speaking at Smarter Tomorrow

The key challenge is not about whether vehicles are electric or automated, it's about choice and behaviour. It's about the links between the mobility and society; about when, where and why we move

One major improved outcome for all is decarbonisation. Climate change is currently one of our most pressing concerns and future mobility options could play a significant role in tackling transport's carbon, health and social challenges, says Perkins. In the UK, transport is the single biggest polluter. 'A future mobility agenda underpinned by digital connectivity and rich data enables us to take a much more mature, almost retail-led approach to how we balance supply and demand.' Rather than owning transpoort, we will shift to considering how we access mobility. Shared, on-demand services will be a better choice for many than owning a second car and, in the future, perhaps than owning a car at all.

'The point is that we need to manage how we use and take care of these assets. If we reach a situation where there is capacity in the transport system – more people using fewer vehicles – we can return public assets such as streets and squares to public uses. We can increase the width of pavements and sidewalks, have more green spaces, and allocate parking spaces more logically. Importantly putting the focus of our places on people not vehicles

But the key challenge is not about whether vehicles are electric or automated, it's about choice and behaviour, says Perkins. 'It's about the links between the mobility and society; about when, where and why we move. If we get this right – and that's a big if – a decarbonised, shared mobility future could move us to a place where we can access clean transport options and unlock opportunities, providing social mobility in urban, peri-urban and rural areas. Those who engage early and with a clear plan will benefit most.'

There is really interesting data coming out about behavioural responses to transport disruption, and there is a clear danger that we treat all modes and transport users as if they're the same. 'I'm really interested in how the disruptors are targeting different segments of society,' says Perkins. Some are getting quite plugged into understanding choice, and this is where future mobility gets really interesting. Where it gets harder is in thinking about serving rural places where it's harder to make business cases add up. We need new business models to tackle rural exclusion, ones that tackle an aging population and I think that there are real opportunities for future mobility to thrive in a shared, electrified and ultimately, autonomous, future. Better accessibility options, using digitally-enabled, dynamic service models such as those starting to evolving in on-demand bus services, for example, are showing that there is a different way forward.'

We don't want to hollow out existing mass transport networks with future mobility solutions, he adds, but we do need to look at different models than linear bus routes, operating at set frequencies. 'The way we consume 'stuff' is changing: wewatch TV on demand, we buy on-line and want everything instantly. The future looks set to be a mix of dynamic and linear services, for many,using integrated access, booking, ticketing and payment platforms. That could make life an awful lot easier for all of us.'

Those of us that grew up with cardboard and paper tickets may feel more uncertain about change, says Perkins. 'But it's clear to see that taking cash is in decline. Account-based ticketing systems, have the power to drive real change. At the moment, the situation is evolving, and it's messy and patchy across the country. We're not yet at the stage of implementing workable standards andwe haven't really shaken down what a good customer service looks like. But we have major trials going on, future mobility zones being formulated, and we're putting significant amounts of money into gathering the evidence we need.

'Some local authorities are really on top of this agenda; really at the cutting edge and are investing a great deal of time and effort. One real challenge is that many authorities are constrained with funding and the day-to-day challenges of maintaining assets, reducing congestion, improving customer service and fixing potholes. Much of the work that I'm doing today, which is at the heart of our programme, is around externalising innovation in real time, and sharing learning so that other get the benefits as we evolve.'

To help with this, WSP has created a structured approach based around four distinct trends:

  • Increasing public interest in, and a shift towards, electric vehicles
  • Distinct from this, the evolution towards connected vehicles, transport systems and networks
  • Progress towards vehicle automation (including driverless vehicles)
  • Increasing appetite for shared use (for example, via ‘mobility as a service’ models)

The publication of the Department for Transport’s 'Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy' is pivotal, says Perkins, as for the first time, the UK has a set of strategic guiding principles to help steer us on the complex path from today’s transport system towards the future. These are sound, clear and broad, and range from safeguarding walking, cycling and mass transit, to conscious consideration of inclusivity and data ownership. And they firmly steer the country towards safe, lower carbon solutions.

There is also recognition of the need for a step-change in collaboration between the private and public sectors if we are to reach genuinely good, productive and sustainable mobility outcomes for people, places and business. The economic elements here are critical. There are new revenue streams on offer, but how the industry crafts the precise mechanisms to create self-sustaining business model will determine their public acceptance, onward funding and longevity.

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