Lessons from the epidemic

The Covid-19 epidemic has prompted discussion of the implications for travel behaviour once it is over. Will the recent downward trend in trips to work and for shopping accentuate? Might people prefer their cars and bikes to travel on crowded public transport? Will there be a bounce back in leisure air travel? All is speculation at present.

More immediately, we see that the new highly infectious virus has prompted huge and rapid global efforts of technological development: tests for the virus and antibody, and novel vaccines. The epidemic has also stimulated extensive efforts to model the consequences, modelling that is open, transparent and collaborative, and that has proved crucial in informing government decisions, in particular to see how new technologies can lessen the need for social distancing.

There are lessons for the transport sector, for which the main priority must be decarbonisation to achieve the government’s net zero carbon target by 2050. Technological development should be stepped up in the areas of batteries for surface transport, and new propulsion technologies for aviation and marine. Electric charging infrastructure needs to be made generally available to stimulate the purchase of electric vehicles.

The models employed in the transport sector are neither open nor transparent. They are obsolete in that they were developed well before current concerns with carbon emissions and are deficient in predicting observed outcomes. We need a new generation of travel/transport models that are open, transparent, and possibly crowdsourced, to inform decisions on policies for decarbonisation, including how new technology can complement behavioural change.

Transport decarbonisation is the top priority. In contrast, automation is not important. As I argued in my recent book, Driving Change, autonomous vehicles will be difficult to deploy on the existing road network, and the benefits are quite limited. It is for the car industry to develop automated features if it thinks that customers might purchase such vehicles. It is for governments to put in place suitable regulatory regimes. But it should not be a priority for governments to support the development of the technology, which would be a distraction from decarbonisation efforts.

This blog post appeared also as a letter in Local Transport Today 17 April 2020