Public Transport: rethinking the paradigm?

During the Industrial Revolution, the UK led the world in innovative transport, from canals and railways to mechanically powered road vehicles. From Trevithick's steam powered road carriage in 1803, Telford's canals and toll roads, through to Stephenson's railways in 1830 and beyond. At the recent Transport Times & KPMG conference in London (23 May 2024), a speaker stated that UK public transport is on life support, and in desperate need of innovative creativity like that of the early 1800s, a sentiment with which most readers would agree.

The Industrial Revolution was characterised by risk taking and using new technology to create 'more', but these innovations often had weak business cases and were driven by the need to rapidly find solutions to gain market share. However, today the business case is considered first, which means it is not just difficult but often impossible to truly excel at rapid and responsive innovation, especially in public transport.

There is broad agreement within society of the benefits of a good transport system – for delivering goods and facilitating services, for commuting and business trips – which are all essential for progressive economic activity. Of course, efficient and effective transport systems also facilitate connectivity for friends, families, and society. Without it we would be economically poorer, majorly inconvenienced and most likely lonelier, all of which were clearly illustrated by the multiple COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, where the lack of access to passenger transport made us more isolated and financially less well off. However, new technological solutions were then rapidly adopted by huge numbers of people, and this change radically changed working conditions and patterns. In a post-COVID world, the nature of passenger transport has been transformed forever: less regular commuting during the week, fewer business trips, but more leisure travel for weekends away. Simply put, the transport economy has made an adjustment and adopted a 'new normal'.

What COVID-19 has taught us, is there are now other ways of fulfilling the staples of public transport, of growing the economy, and of connecting people. For example, a Microsoft Teams monthly license is cheaper than a single commuting ticket, and consider the 'lost' productive time, and often the pure misery of making business trips (e.g. anyone who travels through Euston Station in London).

In the past 18 months the concept of the '15-minute city' (whereby one can access in 15 minutes or under from home all one needs, be it: food, services, work, leisure, etc) has grown in popularity (and notoriety). This concept fundamentally challenges the need for public transport and the promotion of well-being based on human nature. Is this perhaps another systemic change that will once again adjust the currently 'understood' demand principals of public transport, those principles that were used in the business case proposals?

So, given the above competitive pressures, perhaps an alternative paradigm for planning transport delivery should be embraced. Rather than comparing transportation options to decide on delivery, we could step back and focus on understanding the 'value' of transport beyond the financial. We need to regularly examine and reexamine the best ways of delivering defined objectives that are valued by society, both now and at defined intervals over the next 10 years - be these transport modes, digital communication methods, etc. As a society, we can then invest in the most efficient ways of not just providing solutions, but of providing additionality, of going beyond just designing transport and technology systems for the lowest common denominator.

As we enter the weeks leading up to a UK General Election it is highly unlikely the above approach will be taken by any political party. The manifestos are expected to include grand commitments for transport focused on leadership and limited investment. But it is sobering to realise that technology companies, such as the aforementioned Microsoft Teams and other technology enterprises, will be conducting their due diligence on how increase market share – going forward society will commute less and use available transport systems differently. For example, the upcoming Generation Alpha (those born from 2010) are heavily influenced by their understanding of climate change and the need for not just reduced, but zero carbon solutions.

As transport professionals, we have a choice: to accept what we believe is the current 'status quo' and make decisions based on an outdated evidence base, or to acknowledge that competition to public transport is now possible in the form of alternative products, but to develop strategies to compete in a world where the new (technical) kids on the block are as disruptive as Trevithick, Telford or Stephenson. We need to find, define and operationalise the value add in transport – for the current generation, future generations, and the world.