The UK's transport infrastructure is holding us back. With a mediocre world ranking of 15, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitive Index, doing nothing simply isn't an option, particularly given the pace of population increases. So what are the measures that could be taken to lift us to the top of the rankings in the next two decades?
We don't always have to reinvent the wheel. We also don't have to rely solely on constructing new infrastructure. That is not to say that more construction isn't needed, not least in the East of England where either a new motorway or updates to existing links into a radial motorway are direly needed. What we can do now, however, is to make much better and smarter use of the infrastructure we currently have.
For instance, despite being the UK's foremost infrastructure asset, roads are remarkable for how little we know about them. In an age of 'Big Data', road statistics – from traffic speeds and congestion, to pollution and accidents – remain inaccessible or non-existent, and policy suffers as a result. If we collected and made this data freely available, much more intelligent decisions could be made on routing by road-users, and on investment and mitigation by the road's owners – local authorities and the Highways Authority. This data collection could further be enriched by sensors linked to a 5G network, as outlined in my recent report, Future of Connected Business. With more data-driven decision making, we could dramatically increase road traffic volumes and speeds whilst reducing accidents and pollution.
Our railways could also benefit from more fully absorbing digital advances – namely, through digitising all signalling. We have seen what this has achieved on London's Victoria tube line – it is now the second most frequent metro service in the world, with a train every 100 seconds. Network Rail only plans to digitise their whole network by 2040. This is far too slow. Digital signalling should be a priority upgrade over the next 5-10 years, and could potentially double the carrying capacity of the train network with new services, as well as lead to pinpoint timetabling accuracy. Train operators have been in the headlines lately for all the wrong reasons, sparking calls for systemic change. Signalling digitisation presents a less contentious but nonetheless significant step toward improving the efficiency of UK rail travel.
Buses, meanwhile, are getting slower in many city centres, despite being the cleanest, most space-efficient vehicles on the road. This is leading to a vicious circle of declining ridership and more congestion. In response, we must consider further bus and coach road prioritisation. The way to do it is not just with bus lanes and the requisite paint and kerbs. New advances in guided buses that track roads allowing them to drive closer to the side and traffic light prioritisation would make a huge difference in the speed and availability of bus and coach services.
But new tech is not just providing opportunities to enhance existing connectivity, it's also opening up new ones. For instance, a revolution in personal light electric vehicles (PLEVs) is already underway in other corners of the globe, most notably in China and the USA. As battery costs fall and their power rises, electric two- and one-wheeled scooters capable of ranges of 30km and speeds up to 35kmph are transforming last mile connectivity at a cost of just 0.5p per mile. As a result, new scooter sharing start-ups like Lime, Spin and Bird are flourishing across the USA and now coming to Europe.
In Britain however, these vehicles are not permitted on roads, cycle lanes or pavements – just private land. The legalisation of PLEVs – perhaps mandating helmets, insurance and speed limits – is needed to get this revolution started in the UK.
New transportation markets set to be opened up through technological advances are also not limited to the ground surface. We should also be making better use of what is below our feet.
In the long-run, tunnels will need to be part of the solution for connecting up the Northern Powerhouse cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Hull and Sheffield. There is also a case for leap-frogging a generation of upgrades and going straight to technologies like Maglev or Hyperloop pods, running through tunnels at over 600 mph. This is not as fantastical as it sounds. One company, Direct City Networks believes a 15 minute Liverpool to Hull Hyperloop line could be delivered for just under £12 billion – about a third of Crossrail 2.
Meanwhile, above ground (in aviation) on-demand, auto-piloted Personal Air Vehicles have potential to become widespread in the coming decades. While it will be some time before they are allowed to fly low over cities, today's struggling regional airports could re-emerge as a force for their point-to-point connections and logistics hubs. But again, this market cannot emerge without an enabling regulatory and airspace regime.
This is what we are starting to see in the space sector. The Government sanctioned space flight through the Space Industry Bill and now plans are in place for the UK's first spaceport, in the North of Scotland, and another in Cornwall.
While space travel may be the most glamorous option detailed above, there is much the Government should be doing to enhance the UK's transport infrastructure that is far from rocket science. Instead, it is often a case of applying a digital approach to the infrastructure we have and bringing more people together faster than ever before.