This week I received a long-awaited early Christmas present. My Design Group colleagues, Matthew Cook, Miguel Valdez, James Warren and I had written a chapter entitled Towards an Intelligent Mobility Regime in the second edition of the Elsevier book Intelligent Environments. As often happens for a major internationally co-authored publication, this has been almost two years in production, but at long last it was published on 9th December, just in time for the pdf to be deposited into our electronic stockings.
The fact that this is the second edition of the book Intelligent Environments is significant. The first edition came out in 1997, some 25 years ago, and I and my colleagues were invited to write the transport chapter of the 2022 book because I had written the transport chapter in that first edition.
This got me to look back at that 1997 chapter and I was rather surprised by its content, given that it was written when the internet was crawling out of its infancy, mobile phones were just trickling into wider use and the OU largely still delivered courses via mailed course units supplemented by late night BBC2 transmissions. The 1997 chapter was about how telecommunication and IT developments were emerging and being applied to transport, but their design was rooted in the old, unsustainable culture of facilitating continued traffic growth. The chapter argued that this was locking out a transformative design approach that could address the roots of transport’s negative environmental and social impacts. I wrote: “Rather than being used to try to decouple traffic growth from economic growth, these technologies reinforce the coupling even more. The failure for advances in telematics to be linked to advances in the transport policy debate presents a real danger of transport telematics being used in an ineffective and inappropriate manner”….. “Intelligent vehicle technologies are not a neutral technology; they can either be used to reinforce current unsustainable and undesirable transport trends or to help solve the underlying causes of the transport crisis. At the moment so much attention is focussed on developing intelligent vehicle technologies that few people have noticed that this crucial dilemma even exists. If they serve a discredited vision, then these telematic systems will worsen the environmental crisis and the quality of life of us all.”
So what did we write for the 2022 edition? I and my colleagues created the new chapter from scratch, drawing on a whole range of transport IT-related research projects in which we have participated. The material was new, but the strategic conclusion was broadly the same as in 1997; product redesign alone is insufficient to achieve systemic sustainability. What is needed is system redesign, and the transition between systems and socio-technical regimes remains poorly understood within transport policy. Indeed, a major theme of the new chapter is that while technology industries are shifting transport systems into the digital era, transport policy remains grounded in the old analogue way of thinking and doing things.
However, there are some examples of where transformative designs are emerging. One we draw upon is the redesign of public transport services. Urban public transport (buses, trams and metros) use a service design that dates back to when horse buses came into being some 200 years ago. This is of large vehicles operating on fixed routes to regular schedules. People access these by going to stops/stations and paying a fare for their trip. The product technology design has changed dramatically in the last 200 years, but not the system design. Yet, behind the decline in public transport use is the long-term structural fact that 21st century patterns of behaviour, lifestyles and travel simply don’t match this early 19th century service model. Hence the rise in the use of the car and also in IT-enabled cab services such a Uber, Lyft, Kapten, Bolt and Ola, plus the popularity of eScooters and other urban micro-mobility systems.
Such IT enabled developments are just about starting to impact on the design of public transport systems and the best example of this is right on our doorstep in Milton Keynes. Here, instead of continuing to subsidise a fixed network of loss-making buses, the City Council have entered into a partnership with the digital operator Via, to integrate an app-managed shared minivan service (see photo) with commercial bus services to provide a public transport service where and when the conventional buses don’t run. Called MK Connect, this is probably the most significant example of a public transport service system redesign in Britain. But there remains a clash between such innovative service designs and the dominant transport policy regime, which barely recognises such systems as being public transport, and as such funding and regulatory structures make it very hard for such system design innovations to take place.
IT and digital economy developments have moved on apace since the first edition of Intelligent Environments, but the transport policy culture and regime still seems fixed in a 1970s mindset. A transformative redesign of our transport systems is now very possible, but it may take some while for the policy and regulatory regime to catch up.
A final thought; when the call goes out for contributions to the third edition of Intelligent Environments, could my younger colleagues please check the local nursing homes to see if a 94 year old retired academic is still about and willing to pen a few words….
Note: The 1997 Intelligent Environments chapter is available on my pages in Open Research Online and the 2022 chapter has been submitted and will be available there soon. There is also on ORO our recent Town and Country Planning article on the MK Connect service.