Transport Technologies: Slow and Fast

Transport technologies are remarkably slow to change. The first modern mass-produced motorcar took to the road in 1913 – the Model T Ford. In its fundamentals, it was little different from current models: internal combustion engine, gearbox, pneumatic tyres, amateur driver at the steering wheel. Contemporary cars are of course vastly improved in all respects, as are modern trains compared with the locomotives of a century ago, although the steel-wheel-on-steel-rail technology persists.

Speed limits

One consequence of this technological conservatism is that we have run out of the means to travel faster at acceptable cost and impact. Whilst high performance cars are built for enthusiasts, there is no general scope for faster travel on public roads, safely and with tolerable carbon emissions. On the railways, high speed rail routes are planned, but rail is responsible for a minority of all travel and high speed rail would be a minority of a minority, so its impact will be modest. There are more adventurous technologies such as Maglev and Hyperloop, but these seem expensive and inflexible, and therefore likely to be confined to specialist applications if deployed at all.

Why this reluctance to change? Why is nineteenth century technology still found under the bonnet of our cars – pistons, cylinders and crankshafts? Part of the reason is the interconnectedness and mutual dependence of the technologies – mechanical and electrical engineering, fuel supply, road infrastructure, and related safety regulation and road use legislation. The applications of all these technologies are path-dependent, in that we are not free to start again with some theoretically better approach on account of the huge investments that have been made. One particular constraint is the high energy density of oil fuels, which has made the modern car possible and still competes strongly with alternative energy sources. A switch to electric powertrains is going to be expensive, even if the problems of battery technology are solved.

Open and closed

For surface transport, the fundamental distinction is between roads that are open to all and so prone to congestion at times of peak use, and the railway – a closed system that can offer speedy and reliable travel. The nineteenth century was the great age of rail, offering station-to-station travel according to the timetable. In the twentieth century, the motorcar became predominant, providing door-to-door travel at the time of choice. But the very popularity of the car has limited its attractiveness in urban areas where population density is high, so that rail has experienced a revival.

Digital technologies

But while transport technologies evolve slowly and incrementally, the digital technologies and the applications that depend on them leap ahead. How might this change the pattern of transport? There are four broad areas of application of digital technologies to transport:

  • improve and enhance the operation of vehicles, including the possibility of driverless cars;
  • improve and enhance the operation of public transport, including convenient payment, apps for real time information and online advance booking;
  • facilitate travel on the road network, including satnav routing, advance journey time information, and urban traffic management;
  • facilitate seamless journeys across the modes.

Vastly increased computing capacity and data collection have led to big advances in digital applications. The mobile internet allows the reporting of system performance to be crowd-sourced from smart phones, as well as the sharing of vehicles.

The speed and ubiquity of digital technologies also allows travel to be avoided where business can be done through internet telephony and videoconferencing. On the other hand, the ease of establishing digital communication allows more extensive networks of friends and colleagues, with whom face-to-face contact is sought to reaffirm relationships. So the net effect of digital technologies on travel behaviour remains unclear.

Data sources

A recent review commissioned by the Transport Systems Catapult made a valiant effort to get to grips with the rapidly growing range of transport data sources. I liked the idea of ‘digital exhaust’, the data generated through the operations of transport companies and customer interactions, used to understand better individual and aggregated travel intention

One route to exploiting these burgeoning data streams is by private sector companies either selling services of value to consumers, or providing such services free of charge, cross-subsidised, in line with a high ‘expectation of free’ – although this works against smaller providers. The other route is provision by public bodies, of which Transport for London (TfL) is an outstanding example.


In contrast to TfL, Highways England (successor to the former Highways Agency) is lagging in the provision of convenient information to users of the strategic road network. The Department for Transport’s Road Investment Strategy, which commits £15bn over five years, earmarked only £150m to an Innovation Fund for future technologies, the vast bulk of expenditure being devoted to civil engineering work. This Strategy may have been appropriate to the twentieth century, but not to the digital twenty-first.

The Rees Jeffries Road Fund, a charity, is supporting a study, Major Roads for the Future, led by David Quarmby. A Discussion Note on Technology outlines future possibilities and raises worthwhile questions. The challenge is to map the way forward in the face of considerable uncertainty.