Darwin at the University of Glasgow Future of Transport workshop

On 9 September, the University of Glasgow held a workshop about the future of transport. The workshop took place at Inverness Campus, but people were also welcome to take part online.

The attendees included representatives from the University of Glasgow, HITRANS, Kingston Business School, Orkney Islands Council, Stagecoach, Navya, Inverness Campus, Inverness Airport, and our own Darwin Innovation Group. By bringing together the perspectives of a number of different stakeholders with an interest in transport, the workshop was able to identify some of the existing issues with transport and discuss how these might be addressed in the future, with the help of technology such as autonomous vehicles.

In particular, the discussion focused on transport in the Highlands and Islands area of Scotland, although many of the points that came up in the workshop could also apply to other regions.

The travel needs of different groups

One topic that came up in the discussion was the fact that, for a transportation system to truly succeed, it must consider the needs of everyone who might use it.

The BBC News segment ‘London’s pop-up cycle lanes “stopping disabled travel”’ illustrates how, if not everyone is considered, modifications that benefit one group can make travel more difficult for another. The video looks at how cycle lanes between traffic and the pavement can make it difficult for taxis to pick up or drop off wheelchair users.

For another example, the discussion touched on convenient ways to pay for travel. Paying with a contactless card is quick and easy, and it’s already the norm in London, where you cannot pay with cash on a bus.

However, paying with a contactless card is not possible for everyone. Children or teenagers may not yet have their own bank account, and tourists may not have a contactless card, or may not have a card that’s accepted on public transport at their destination. It’s important to consider these demographics if you’re trying to make a transport system cashless. London accounts for these cases with the Oyster card, a contactless card specifically for travel on the city’s public transport network, which can be topped up with cash at stations or shops.

To ensure our discussion wasn’t restricted to one or two demographics, the workshop invited attendees to think about the travel needs of various sections of society, such as business people, tourists, athletes, disabled travellers and people across the spectrum of age.

It can also be helpful to approach transport by thinking about the needs of particular regions, in addition to particular demographics of society. Whatever demographics a person may belong to, they may end up living in an area that has no easy access to public transport, so it’s important to link these isolated areas to the transport network. A well-placed change to the transport system can benefit the entire community.

The travel issues that exist

Rural areas are often highly dependent on cars, which can cause a number of problems:

  • Cars have a larger impact on the environment than higher-capacity public transport.
  • Because many cars are required to transport the same number of people as, for example, a bus or train, cars contribute to congestion on the road, wasting time and worsening the impact of vehicles on the environment.
  • Not everyone can drive. In particular, young people, elderly people, people who can’t afford a car and people with certain disabilities may find themselves without transport options, leading to isolation and difficulty in accessing essential services.

To reduce dependency on cars, we need to look at how public transport can be made more accessible for everyone.

The workshop discussion touched on various issues that currently exist in transportation, in the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere, and on how these might be addressed. For example:

  • In areas like the Highlands and Islands, large regions with low population density, it can be difficult to access work. In addition to improving public transport networks, remote working can be a valuable tool here, reducing the need to travel at all.
    • Virtual reality and high-definition video calls could also help reduce the need to travel in some other cases, for example by enabling people to consult doctors remotely.
  • Much of the area lacks network coverage, which can be a particular issue when combined with the above point. If people need to travel long distances to access work, they may also want an internet connection to be able to get things done or entertain themselves on the journey. For example, a person commuting from Lairg to Inverness and back will spend three hours a day on trains, and a reliable connection could help them to make more use of that time. Reliable connections are also essential for home working.
    • This is an area of interest for us at Darwin Innovation Group. By enabling vehicles or devices to switch seamlessly between mobile and satellite networks, we aim to make it possible to connect to the internet even in rural areas or moving vehicles. To learn more, take a look at our page on 5G and satellite communications.
  • For some travellers, it can be difficult to access transport hubs on foot. Door-to-door transport services could be helpful in these cases.
    • In the future, flexible, accessible door-to-door or door-to-station public transport – perhaps picking up multiple people travelling to the same destination – could help to reduce reliance on low-occupancy taxis, meaning the same goal could be achieved with fewer vehicles and lower emissions.
    • Autonomous shuttles could help here: mid-sized autonomous vehicles that, in the future, could potentially receive requests from passengers and automatically calculate the most efficient route to pick people up.
    • This could become more important in the cost of living crisis, as driving becomes harder to afford and people become less able to rely on friends or family to give them a lift.
  • Bus driver shortages are an issue across the UK. This could be addressed with a combination of improved pay and conditions, to attract more bus drivers, and autonomous buses, which could mean that services can run with fewer drivers.
  • Access to clear information about public transport is important, particularly for tourists, who may not be familiar with the local public transport system. No matter how well-connected a public transport network is, people will only use it if they understand it. Without clear information about how to get where they need to go on public transport or what sort of ticket they need, travellers may choose the less environmentally friendly option of a taxi.
    • At the moment, when you arrive in another country, your mobile provider will often send you a text with information about roaming charges. Perhaps something similar could be done for transportation: when your phone detects that you’ve arrived in a new area, it could send you a message with a link to clear information about local public transport, ideally in the language the phone is set to. Of course, this is a solution that relies on reliable network coverage, reinforcing the importance of having connectivity available everywhere.
    • One thing that’s important to remember as transportation becomes more automated is that, when travellers want information, they’d often like the option to speak to a human. On an autonomous vehicle, there’s no driver to speak to. This could perhaps be addressed with, for example, a button aboard the vehicle, which could connect passengers to a help service.
  • Crucially, public transport must be widespread and affordable. It’s essential for people to be able to access shops, schools, work and medical services. By making it easier for them to reach their destination on public transport, we can reduce reliance on cars, making services more accessible and reducing the impact of transportation on the environment.

The workshop was an interesting way to explore the ways that public transport could be improved. We’re looking forward to the next one!

Darwin Innovation Group is a UK-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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