Let's transform transport by setting information free

Technology should be revolutionising the way transport works but we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible, argues Giles Henday.

The future of Network Rail is in the news yet again as Mark Carne announces his retirement after four years in charge and speculation flies about who will replace him. Carne has been criticised by some sections of the media for his alleged failure to deliver promised infrastructure improve-ments, despite driving through major projects like the London Bridge development. 

His successor will come under immediate pressure to get more delivered. But it is essential that whoever steps in to take over understands that the transport sector - in all its aspects - is entering a new era. The old ‘siloed’ modal thinking to providing infrastructure is no longer enough.

Transport is a technical and highly specialised sector. It is largely run by men and women who are expert in their fields, task oriented and dedicated to delivering the best in their chosen area. But digital technologies are transforming what can be achieved in transport planning and raising expectations among users in the process. 

The disjointed, uncoordinated nature of inter-modal travel is becoming ever more conspicuous to travellers who are becoming increasingly used to the highly integrated world made possible by new tech through mobile devices. The demand for seamless journeys across road, rail, air, or any other mode you care to mention is only going to become ever greater. The transport sector is going to need a convincing reply.

For decades the rallying cry of the internet revolution has been ‘information wants to be free!’ And yet everywhere around us we find data in chains. Every customer that passes through a ticket barrier adds to a data mountain that would make app developers go weak at the knees. But it is a resource that still remains underutilised, because it is kept locked up. What if it was let loose to be mined by the army of small start-ups and digital entrepreneurs that are busy transforming just about every other aspect of modern life?

The sorts of technologies that would emerge from this sort of free access cannot be predicted in detail. That is the point. But it is easy to imagine an app that could plan and re-plan a journey from bus, to bike, tube and train, car (driverless or otherwise) and even air that responds to real-time, near instant updates on personal travel plans, GPS location, live passenger flows, congestion and other disruptions and redirects the user to the transport that gets them to their destination in the most convenient and time-efficient way possible.

That would mean significant efficiency gains from existing infrastructure with minimal investment or disruption. If we want to maximise the potential of such an approach for the future, we need to be integrating it from the beginning, at the planning stage. New transport infrastructure projects should be developed with an eye not just on the use of technology to improve efficiencies and customer experience for any particular mode, but on how the technology can contribute to seamlessly integrating multiple modes into the broader transport ecosystem. 

It will mean working in a new way, breaking down silos and breaking the mental habits that treat each project as a self-contained task to be judged a success or failure only on its own terms. We have heard that before, of course. Silos seem to have been under fire for years without changing much, but with the advances in technology it is no longer possible to ignore that something has decisively changed. The emergence of app-driven business models such as Uber together with innovations such as city bike schemes, the success of smart motorways and the inevitable revolution of driverless cars are profoundly changing the mental norms and physical landscape we take for granted. These now need an emphatic response.

It will require a culture shift at the Department for Transport and across industry to break down these silos but it can happen. At CPC our people are adept and have extensive experience of helping TfL and Highways England (and many others) innovate in bringing public agencies and private contractors together to solve challenges with dramatic results visible to anyone using their debit card to travel by tube or taking a car journey using a smart motorway. We know that transport can be transformed if the will is there, but we also know that we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. 

Of course, infrastructure development of our existing assets will still be needed. Rail will always need to be maintained and replaced, stations built and refurbished, motorways upgraded and renewed. But if we don’t place those projects into the context of smart integrated inter-modal transport models we will be missing the opportunity to improve and adversely misdirecting huge amounts of resources as well as failing to provide optimum benefits for the travelling public.

Can we afford to keep working in the same old way while Elon Musk and the new generation of tech billionaires are lifting off into space or Google creating self-driving cars and Amazon inserting drones into the supply chain? I think the answer is obvious. Information wants to be free. Let’s break the chains.

Giles Henday is a partner at CPC project management consultancy and has 30 years' experience of leading high-profile transport and tech contracts for both the public and private sector.