Transport discussions don’t always get pulses racing, but when they do the results can be spectacular.
After ten days of presentations, workshops and generally orderly Q&As, tension levels at the Imagine Festival were deliberately ratcheted up on Tuesday for a “Battle of Ideas” dedicated to the Future of Transport.
The event was hosted by Institute of Ideas director Claire Fox who began the evening by admitting that she had had her doubts about being able to stage a red-blooded debate on transport issues.
“When you look at transport more closely, though, it is actually one of the most contentious issues in British politics – from HS2 to NIMBYism, or from strikes over unstaffed ticket offices to the debate over building a third runway at Heathrow,” Fox reflected. “Only last week, a piece in the Guardian described the aviation industry as a ‘carbon criminal’. So when they say that transport moves people, it clearly does – in the sense of the emotions that transport evokes.”
Fox told the audience it was her intention to stir up a lively debate on the issue and, aided by a vociferous panel, she certainly succeeded in that aim. Indeed, it only took about 30 seconds before the moderator was having to make her first intervention – shushing two panellists as they shouted over each other while arguing the merits, or otherwise, of HS2.
Writer, broadcaster and London mayor wannabe Christian Wolmar was perhaps the most outspoken, starting his contribution to the evening by questioning the very way in which transport “success” is measured.
“Focus on accessibility”
“Since the invention of the steam engine, we’ve been obsessed by the concept of mobility but only in terms of how we measure the speed of travel, or covering as many miles as possible, but what we need to focus on is accessibility which is much more difficult to measure,” Wolmar insisted. “And we have to base that on reducing car use because the cities around the world who have managed to reduce car use are the ones who’ve become more prosperous.”
The Transport Systems Catapult’s own Chief Technology Officer Paul Zanelli also called for a change of mind-set, but argued that this should not be overly focused on any particular mode of transport.
“People often drop the word ‘Systems’ from our company’s name, but it’s there for a reason, and that’s because a systems-based approach is fundamental,” Zanelli argued. “The key thing with a systems approach is understanding customer needs and what functions you need to deliver.
“The UK really does have some world class stuff now, with our rail network the most improved in Europe and on track to be the best, our roads the safest in Europe, success stories like London’s Oyster card and our airports among the busiest in the world, but in terms of customer needs I think it’s fair to say we could do better.”
With congestion among the main irritants for many travellers, Wolmar then stirred things up once more by asking if it might not be possible to differentiate between “good” and “bad” journeys – citing British men flying off for boozy stag dos in Riga as an example of the type of travel that might somehow be discouraged.
It was an idea that went down badly with the rest of the panel, who questioned how anyone could determine the “morality” of a given journey – and who would make that decision. Kuldeep Gharatya, Head of Railway Systems at London Underground, meanwhile expressed a more personal sense of outrage, revealing that he had had his own stag weekend in Riga…
The increasing autonomy of vehicles and the anticipated arrival of fully driverless cars was another hot topic, with Zanelli citing these as the most likely disruptors of the transport sector in the near future. Zanelli described this as a generally positive development that would vastly reduce congestion and free up huge swathes of urban space which is currently set aside for parking.
Wolmar was less convinced, however.
“I agree that driverless cars are probably the biggest revolution to come,” he nodded. “But I don’t think the effects will be largely beneficial, and I don’t see how they will get rid of traffic jams. That’s why I do believe that we have to be able to assess the purposes of journey and see if they provide enough need to justify the infrastructure investment.
“Saying that ‘Travel is freedom’ is a nice slogan, but there should not be a universal freedom to travel anywhere whatever the cost.”
Sociology and sci-fi
The floor was then opened to members of the audience, one of whom suggested that more needed to be done to assess the social and psychological issues underlying many transport choices, citing the stigma that many people still attach to travelling by bus as one example. The supposedly widening gap between London and the rest of the UK was also flagged up, while another audience member questioned the lack of vision in today’s policy making, asking the panel which “sci fi” ideas from the Sixties would they like to see become reality.
With the sky no longer the limit, there was plenty of talk of hyperloops, space ports, half hour journeys to Australia and even teleportation, while Kuldeep went one step further and said he was still dreaming of the day when “I can get somewhere before I’ve even left”.
When that day finally arrives, we will presumably no longer need heated debates about transportation. Returning back to earth, however, Kuldeep summed up neatly why our current transport needs are likely to fuel emotions for quite some time to come.
“The point is that transport is about much more than how you get from A to B,” the London Underground man concluded. “It’s also about how much time you get to spend with your children at the end of the working day, or how much money you have left to spend after you’ve taken care of your transport needs. So it’s an intrinsic part of our lives and that’s why it drives such a very emotional response.”
Following Tuesday’s heated debate, attention switches on Wednesday to the white heat of technology, as BBC presenter Quentin Cooper chairs a “Tech xChange” examining some of the most exciting recent innovations – including 3D printing and the Internet of Things – and asking what impact these might have on mobility.
For more information on the Imagine Festival, see our dedicated website www.imaginefestival.co.uk .