Four possible visions for the future of public transport

The way people get around is starting to change, and as a professor of transport strategy I do rather wonder if the modes of transport we use today will still be around by the turn of the next century.

Growing up, my favourite book was a children’s encyclopaedia first published in 1953. One double page spread featured an annotated cityscape, showing all aspects of the built environment – most of which we would still be familiar with now. The various modes of transport illustrated – trains, buses, lorries, taxis, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians and private cars – still work together as a system in fundamentally the same ways.

But a whole range of possible (though not inevitable) societal and technological changes could revolutionise how we travel in the coming decades. These include large-scale responses to the climate change agenda and energy sourcing and security; shifting demographic trends (such as growing numbers of elderly people); the development of the collaborative economy; the growing use of big data; and the apparent inevitability of driverless cars.

To examine what future urban transport systems might look like, I recently directed a future-gazing project for New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport exploring how people might be travelling in the year 2045. I helped develop four scenarios, along two axes of change.

The first axis considered automation – at one end, vehicles are still be driven much like today (partial automation). At the other, they’re driverless (full automation). The second axis related to how dense cities could become – one future where the population is more dispersed (like Los Angeles) and another where it is concentrated at a higher density (more like Hong Kong). With these axes in mind, I generated four possible futures for public transport, which could play out in cities across the world.

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