Transport in the balance

3 min read

Technology is key to ensuring transport systems not only satisfy demand but also protect against climate change, says Douglas Alexander.

Technology has always driven change in the transport world, from the canal system that supported the early industrial revolution in Britain to the railways that revolutionised travel in the 1800s and the motor vehicles and aircraft of the 20th century.

Each innovation redefined our transport landscape and offered an ingenious solution to the mobility needs of the day. But today, we cannot merely apply the lessons of the past to build a transport network for the future — we face new and global challenges.

We all need to face up to the challenge of climate change because carbon emissions do not stop conveniently at borders and boundaries. As our economies have grown, congestion on our roads has risen and will continue rising if we do nothing to stop it. Also, as recent events in the UK have shown, transport remains a target for terrorists.

The pace of change has also accelerated sharply. In the past, growth in demand for new forms of transport was comparatively steady. Sometimes the system was stretched but in general there was time to build a robust transport infrastructure, to assimilate and digest new patterns of travel, to predict and provide, so capacity was less of an issue.

Change was more often an event, a measurable step forward. Today market conditions, customer aspirations and work and leisure patterns are changing constantly.

New technology means we can book travel tickets over the internet and get up-to-date travel information wherever we are. It means we can better fight congestion by managing traffic flow and design cars that protect passengers and pedestrians in a collision.

Surrounded by so much new technology, we like to think we have greater control over our lives. But the pace of change means the future is increasingly difficult to predict.

Until recently, transport planners and engineers had relatively simple priorities; most were concerned with speed, capacity, and cost. If a road became congested they would think about building another. If they were running out of capacity, they would simply build more capacity. But today's world is significantly more complex.

Our apparently inexhaustible demand for travel and mobility means we cannot operate as before — and our environmental obligations mean this approach is not sustainable.

The answer to burgeoning transport demand in the 21st century is not just building more roads, car parks and airports. No more can the environmental impact of transport growth be sidelined.

In 2006, an Intelligent Transport System has to balance capacity and demand with climate change. It must balance safety restrictions with personal freedom and short-term demand with the long-term future.

We need to think boldly and the technology we use needs to be smarter, so that complex tasks can be made simpler. We have to know how, when and where technology can be best used. It must be applicable, affordable and make a difference to the passenger. Technology will be at the heart of the debate over future demand management schemes such as congestion charging or road pricing.

My department is examining technologies and services being developed commercially to see how emerging systems could support a national road pricing scheme in the future. By spring next year we hope to be working with industry partners on a series of demonstration projects to tackle some of the difficult design issues on road pricing.

Another good example of clever technology is smart cards, linking different transport modes in different areas, encouraging more integrated travel. It is through improvements such as this, which keep pace with the changes in people's everyday lives, that the use of public transport will continue to grow in the long term.

New challenges such as congestion, carbon emissions and transport security are global in scale. Therefore the solutions will also be global — global technological solutions, which can benefit from access to global markets.

Make no mistake — mankind will never stop searching for transport that is faster, more profitable and more reliable. Speed, capacity and cost will remain key objectives as long as there is a demand for travel.

But the changing nature of transport means we must develop a market for technology that also considers safety and sustainability. Transport policy must work for everyone. It must support and strengthen our economies but also reach out to inaccessible communities. It must work on international, national, regional and local scales — with everyone working to achieve shared objectives.

Edited extracts of a speech given by Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for Transport, at last month's Intelligent Transport Systems conference