The publication of the Department for Transport’s 'Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy' is pivotal. For the first time, the UK has a set of strategic guiding principles to help steer us on the complex path from today’s transport system towards the future.
With a focus on cities and the urban environment, this is the first formal product of the Department’s investigation into the Mobility Grand Challenge, for which the scene was set in the government’s industrial strategy. We expect that it will be followed by guidance on rural and inter-urban mobility.
At the heart of the publication are nine future mobility principles. These are sound, clear and broad. They range from safeguarding walking, cycling and mass transit, to conscious consideration of inclusivity and data ownership. And they firmly steer the country towards safe, lower carbon solutions.
From a local and regional government viewpoint, this is the moment many have been calling for, as we now have national commitment from the government to guide good, long-run mobility outcomes.
Those looking to criticise might suggest that there is no indication of which principles are the most important or urgent, but to me, the fact that they exist is the first essential step towards exactly these details. Together, they provide criteria against which advocates of specific place or transport proposals could start to justify change at all scales, and against which they can be evaluated.
What it means for business
Threaded through the publication are two other underlying themes for business.
The first is a recognition of the need for a step-change in collaboration between the private and public sectors if we are to reach genuinely good, productive and sustainable mobility outcomes for people, places and business. The economic elements here are critical. There are new revenue streams on offer, but the precise mechanisms crafted to shape these into a self-sustaining business model will underpin their public acceptance, onward funding and longevity.
The second, closely linked to this, is the need to ensure that technology is only introduced where it solves a real problem or contributes to a better end-solution, not for its own sake.
From a business perspective, therefore, this publication provides a new mandate to get involved. To succeed, we will need a far greater range of private sector stakeholders ‘inside the tent’, not just technology specialists but also strategic land-owners, investors, developers and house-builders.
Most are already aware of the ongoing – and accelerating – major shifts in mobility. They have a view about the opportunities and challenges these present in their unique context. The more forward-thinking have been asking for guidance and advice in these areas for some time; we now need to join these conversations together.
This is easier said than done. As we know, different public and private sector stakeholders naturally act in different geographies, with different timelines and with different core interests. Set against a background of constant change (we will be learning fast from the Future Mobility Zones and can also expect the relentless emergence of new technologies), I would suggest that business voices have an additional role to play in reminding others of the need to accept change and uncertainty. They need to focus on readiness to adapt rather than trying to perfect a pre-formed solution.
The time to experiment
The good news is that we don’t need to wait for a single national mobility solution to solve everything at a stroke, or to be implemented at the flip of a virtual switch.
Instead, we will need a patchwork of local and strategic mobility solutions that will overlap, join and evolve. Some of these will generate revenues – and perhaps some will be used to fund others – but together they will form a coherent and sustainable system.
Working together, we can get more comfortable with the idea that our physical transport infrastructure assets (roads, rail etc) are relatively fixed but the way that they are used will evolve many times over the life of these assets. This means that there is room for experimentation and improvement, so we can optimise for fair returns, accessibility, safety and efficiency.
Orchestrated well – and quickly – the mobility changes that we are already experiencing could bring large areas of new land into play for new homes and jobs. They could allow us to breathe new life into existing places, give us cleaner air, reduced congestion, fewer road deaths and a better quality of life. Done carelessly and without collaboration, we could make every one of these aspects worse – and it is all of us and the next generation who will carry that cost.