Future challenges | Mott MacDonald on transport

The pace of change in transport thinking and technology seems faster than at any time in history, and the shape of things to come in the next 50 years is uncertain.

Fifty years is a very long time in transport. In 1972, when NCE was launched, the Channel Tunnel was still seen as a Victorian engineer’s daydream. High speed trains existed only in Japan and had been running for less than 10 years. Work had only recently started on the first sections of what was to become the M25 London orbital motorway. Glasgow’s 90 year old tram service had shut down 10 years before, leaving Blackpool as the only UK town with a working tramline until the start of the light rail renaissance in the 1990s.

Pinning down the next 50 years

“What things will look like 50 years from now is impossible to pin down in detail,” says Mott MacDonald managing director for transport in the UK and Europe Ken Norbury. 

“Who saw 50 years ago what a mobile phone would be capable of, or how the internet and digital technologies would change our lives?”

Two years of pandemic-driven home working, online shopping and supply chain disruption have changed passenger and freight transport globally. Big data, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence will have major impacts. According to Norbury, there is also an appetite in society, among the public and local and national politicians, to rethink the transport landscape. 

It involves bringing sustainability to the fore – cutting transport-related carbon emissions to net zero, building resilience to the physical impacts of climate change, driving towards a circular economy by eliminating waste, and providing transport that is socially inclusive. Locally, it also includes thinking about the role of transport in socioeconomic development and placemaking – “what you want your town or city to be”.

Norbury adds: “Our entire approach to assessing what transport infrastructure we need, what modes of transport we will use and how much will be needed, will become a lot more mindful. We are switching from a ‘predict and provide’ approach to ‘decide and provide’, where we first decide what sort of transport is appropriate to support societal ambitions before we decide what infrastructure to build, if any, or perhaps repurpose.”

We will be looking a lot more in coming years at what can be done with existing infrastructure

The views of citizens will be sought more and used to inform local and national transport policy. 

“Social outcomes will be key to decision making in future,” he adds. “Contracting and consultancy will need to develop to support a people- and environment-centred approach.”

Access to the things people want – work, education, recreation, services, quality housing, healthcare and amenities – will increasingly be provided by improving spatial proximity and digital connectivity, says Clare Wildfire, Mott MacDonald’s global cities lead. 

“The whole transport question is being reframed: people now have more choice as to how they get the things they need and are coming to expect better still. We’re moving to a more user-led paradigm,” she says. 

“We are seeing a drift away from car ownership, especially among younger people, and mobility will be provided more as a service. Society will decouple economic growth from the need for an ever-expanding, carbon intensive transport system, partly because people will be able to access the things they need online or in their neighbourhood.”

Intercity mobility

However, intercity mobility has an important role to play in the levelling up agenda. The UK’s economic engine – London and the South East – is connected by an extensive, affordable, accessible and convenient multi-modal transport system. Although users grumble about it, it is the envy of towns and cities nationwide. London and the South East also have strong digital infrastructure. The effect is to give people unrivalled access to employment and other opportunities, while employers can source the skills they require from a vast pool. 

Creating a stronger transport network spanning the Pennine region would link up towns and cities with a similar-sized population to that of Greater London. Improved transport and digital access would enable employers to tap talent, businesses to trade, and towns and cities to collaborate: physical mobility contributing to economic and social mobility. 

Road transport will not always be the system that prevails. “I was interested in the recent decision by Stockport Council not to have a new £500M bypass,” says Norbury. “It was a brave decision. I noted that it was called an ‘old world solution’. This echoes what we are hearing elsewhere. The obsession with the car seems to be changing.” 

Digital technologies will change the depth of insight transport planners and consultants have into how people actually use transport. 

“We need to appreciate more that all transport modes are interconnected,” Norbury says. “We will be looking a lot more in coming years at what can be done with existing infrastructure. Capturing and analysing data from transport use will become more important as we look at how transport modes interconnect. A systems approach will be adopted to make sure it all links up.”

Questioning the need for journeys

Wildfire adds that over the next 50 years we will be asking ourselves more often whether a journey is needed. 

As new transport options emerge, we will also be asking which mode is most convenient, and socially and environmentally acceptable – new micro-mobility, air transport and shared mobility solutions are emerging now, with more, as yet unimagined, ones to come.

Norbury reinforces this view: “Increasingly, ideas like flying cars appear less wacky. There will certainly be significant changes in the modes of transport that we use,” he says. 

“As we move forward, a lot of conversations have to take place and a lot will have to happen politically, encompassing transport investment
and regulation”.

Those involved in planning, delivering and operating the future transport system will require new skill sets. While traditional engineering know-how will always be required, it needs to be married with digital and empathy skills.

According to Norbury, the work of consulting engineers in the future will reflect society’s expectations and demands, shaped by technological progress, environmental pressures, investment options, political aspirations and ethics. 

No longer engineering in isolation

“There will certainly be engineering design. But we’ll be meeting needs with digital solutions and advising on social, environmental and other outcomes too,” he concludes.

In 50 years, there will undoubtedly be aspects of the transport system and how it is managed that today’s civil engineers recognise. But there will be plenty that they do not. 

  • Published in association with Mott MacDonald

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