Transforming Transport: driving change through tech

Ben Roberts

17 Oct 2017

82% of us commute to work each day, according to research by Vodafone UK. Perhaps that’s why us Brits talk about transport almost as much as we comment on the weather. Some of us brave the tube – the world’s first (and presumably sweatiest) underground railway. Some drive. Others may hop on the train. And you can guarantee that whichever means of transport you use, everyone has an opinion. That’s because transport matters. It impacts our everyday lives, stealing precious time from us while we get from A to B. And it impacts our work; an LSE report suggests a reduction in commuting could have a positive impact on employee productivity. Despite its importance, however, the UK transport sector has sometimes struggled to keep pace with technological advancement in other parts of the world. So how can we better innovate in this sector to enhance both our personal and professional lives?

Thinking bigger than HS2

High Speed Two (HS2), the major infrastructure project designed to connect the Midlands and North of England with London, is always in the press. At the Conservative Party Conference, Chancellor Philip Hammond committed £300 million to improving travel times between Northern Powerhouse cities. Not everyone was impressed. Just this week, the Institute of Directors’ (IoD’s) senior infrastructure policy adviser Dan Lewis suggested “HS2 will be yesterday’s technology by the time it is ready.” He continued, “Do we make incremental upgrades to infrastructure, or do we spend once on a first-of-its-kind project that could deliver much greater outcomes?”

Is Hyperloop the answer?

High speed rail has actually existed as a technology for decades, spreading throughout Europe in the early 80s, so Wikipedia tells me. While it’s too late to go back on HS2, it raises interesting questions for future investments. Elon Musk’s famed Hyperloop technology is one such option for the track in front of us. This futuristic mode of transport hurls a pod through a tube at extraordinary speeds. As it is still in an early development stage, it perhaps isn’t classed as a safe bet just yet. But the potential transformative impact it could have on regional, national and international transport is dramatic. Current ideas of a reasonable commuting distance would be shattered, and the economic benefits of connecting cities in such ways probably isn’t really yet understood. Richard Branson has already invested in this technology, which Musk originally offered as an open-source idea. Rebranding it quite predictably as Virgin Hyperloop One, Branson claims it could one day enable people to get from Scotland to London in just 45 minutes.

No such thing as a permanent solution

The future will be faster, one way or another, and built upon either evolutionary or revolutionary technologies. But I wonder whether we’ll ever be satisfied with the transport we have in place. With new technologies and services come new expectations. Given we now expect a web page to load in less than two seconds, it’s safe to tech is not only enabling us to do things more quickly but also shrinking our patience in the process. If a two-hour commute is far too long today, will 30-45 minutes be thought of in the same way tomorrow? My prediction is that it will be. But only time will tell. One thing about the future is surely guaranteed, however: talking about transport will continue to be a very British pastime for a long while yet. Talking of very British pastimes, it’s a nice day out there isn’t it… Photo credit: SpaceX Hyperloop, used under CC BY.