The decisions we make about our transport have far reaching consequences, and ultimately shape our society and the communities we live in.
The Government has recently made changes to the law to allow trials of driverless vehicles on our roads, with the first such trials beginning in January 2015. It is understandable that Ministers would want to ensure that Britain is given the best chance to compete. Google has stolen a march on the automotive industry with its driverless trials in the US. And Britain should be well placed to be a world leader in driverless technology.
As Science Minister Greg Clark commented “It combines our strengths in cars, satellites, big data and urban design”.
There is no doubt that advances in automation have opened up possibilities which we could once only have dreamt of. And there are major potential gains for UK PLC. But we cannot afford to allow technology alone to be the driving force behind change. This needs to be balanced with a full consideration of the wider implications for our society.
Politicians and the media inevitably focus on implications for cars. One risk is that this focus will be at the expense of mass based transport.
In a report published recently, former Government advisor Professor David Begg has concluded that that automated vehicles have great potential but must not be allowed to shape our cities in the way the internal combustion engine was allowed to in the last century.
“It will not be good for the economy or the environment if autonomous vehicles lead to lower density cities or higher car use”.
He also pointed to excellent safety benefits: if all cars, taxis and buses were driverless there would be approximately 90% fewer fatalities on our roads.
Transport Minister Claire Perry has highlighted the potential of autonomous vehicles to improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions. All of which is true, as long as policy direction takes into account the fact that we have only a limited amount of road space. Congestion costs the UK more than £11 billion a year. And there is nothing green about a traffic jam, however clean and driverless.
The real opportunity will lie in applying principles of automation to challenge our prevailing car dominated culture, and to empower mass based transport to lead to a much more efficient use of our roads. Research by the University of Leeds has shown how buses facilitate essential economic activity. The bus is the predominant mode of access to city centres, for example, accounting for 29% of expenditure. We need to find ways to further capitalise on this contribution.
Preparation for tomorrow’s world also needs to be balanced with meeting the needs of the present. And right now for many who are unable to drive or afford the alternatives, buses are the only show in town. This is why cuts to bus funding have such serious implications for social inclusion. Age-UK research shows that buses are a life-line for the elderly, and recent cuts to services have been very damaging.
We must embrace opportunities and prepare for the future, but not at the expense of our communities, our society and a sustainable economy.