After two decades of nearly uninterrupted growth, rail travel in the South East fell by over 4% in 2016. This is at a time when the population of the region is booming with London alone set to reach 10 million by 2030, according to some estimates. Many theories have been put forward to explain this surprising – almost paradoxical – turn of events, from poor service and infrastructure driving commuters back to their cars to rising costs making the commute unaffordable for service workers. There is sure to be some truth in all of these explanations – changes like this usually have complex multi-faceted causes – but there is one aspect that has been more or less overlooked and which perhaps offers cause for a little more optimism: the rise of the super-commuter.
What distinguishes the super-commuter from the common or garden variety is the willingness and ability to use new technologies to adapt their journeys quickly to changing circumstances, untied from a single mode, free from the straight jacket of the season ticket! The super-commuter knows which route works best, when and where to park their car to switch mode to get to their destination faster.
This new species of traveller is not exclusively made up of young technophiles excited by the latest iPhone or Android. The stresses of congestion, infrastructure failure and underinvestment on key networks are driving a growing number of commuters of all ages to look for the edge that can be found in the right app. They are to be seen all over but, as so often, the South East leads the way.
Transport pressures in the South East are greater than anywhere else in the UK and the region’s commuters are quick to embrace any innovation that can get them to their destination faster. Just look at the Boris bike, widely derided at its inception but leading to a 300% increase in cycling in the capital and now a busy eco-system of competing bike share schemes in other towns and cities.
The adaptability of the super-commuter, without any significant support or investment at a policy level, is a powerful demonstration of the opportunities offered by decentralization and the adoption of flexible inter-modal habits that should give us hope.
But it is not enough to simply stand back and expect the problem to take care of itself. The infrastructure really is creaking and the population rise is not slowing down. For large parts of the region, new roads and rail are not a practical option, and even widening and improving are too costly and time consuming in much of the South East to be of much use in the short to medium term. We simply have to do better with what we have and the super-commuters are giving us a big clue as to how we can go about it.
The question that needs to be asked now, is: how can we as a sector take a lead in exploiting the huge potential of new technologies coupled with the willingness of travellers in the South East to adopt and adapt to create a system that supports rather than resists the patterns of use that are naturally emerging?
Part of the answer to that question is already at out finger tips. A huge amount of real-time data is generated every minute across London and the South East as travellers pass through ticket barriers, undock a shared bike, or pay a toll; data that is gold to software engineers and app developers. The problem is we are mostly just sitting on it. The rallying cry of the internet revolution has been ‘information wants to be free!’ And yet everywhere around us we find data in chains. 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 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. But 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. That would demand a change in mindset across the sector of course. We would need to think in terms of a regional ‘transport offering’ instead of thinking of modes in competition with each other. That sort of change can be uncomfortable, but what are the alternatives?
We have heard this sort of thing before, of course, the war against ‘silos’ has been a long and not always glorious one, but we are at a point when it is becoming obvious that something has decisively changed and we need an emphatic response.
It will require a culture shift at the Department for Transport and across industry to break down some of these silo walls, but it can happen. At CPC we have long experience of helping organisations like TfL and Highways England 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.
Nowhere has more to gain from this way of thinking than the South East. The pressures are greater but so too are the opportunities. At the moment, we are playing catch up with a changing scene that we have not done nearly enough to understand. It is time to take the lead.
Giles Henday has for over 30 years led high profile transport and tech contracts for both the public and private sector; contact him if you share his passion for harnessing the opportunities emerging from new tech.
- Transport for the South East’s Connecting the South East event takes place in Farnborough on 8 May includes senior speakers from DfT, Highways England, Network Rail and others. Harnessing the opportunities from new tech is the central theme of the “tech area” at this year’s Highways UK at the NEC on 7/8 November. It comprises the Intelligent Infrastructure Hub (sponsored by Costain) and the Technology Dome (sponsored by PA Consulting), which combine to create one of the event’s main focal points. Contact Andrew.Dowding@Highways-UK.com for opportunities to get involved in either event.
Giles Henday – Partner, CPC