ramblings of an aimless mind

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The future of transport.

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We did a fair amount of car travel lately and one of the things that instantaneously struck me was how inexpensive it works out to be compared to public transport, at least in Britain. After filling up with about 50 GBP of petrol, four people could travel about 350 miles with some fuel still left over. Doing the same journeys in public transport would have been hideously expensive and even inconvenient as we would have had to change trains/busses and still not gone door to door. As a fan of public transport, this fact is slightly disconcerting, but there is not escaping it and it got me thinking about whether my previous unreserved support for public transport was really wise.

Cars, rail and busses all have their strengths and weaknesses, which makes them suitable in different conditions. Rail is extremely well suited for mass transit and are probably the most efficient way to move large numbers of people/goods from point A to point B thanks to its massive carrying capacity, low friction between rail and wheel and possibility of high speeds. The setup cost for rail however is quite large and the flexibility of the infrastructure is almost negligible as only trains can travel on tracks. Naturally, the best utilised train systems can be found in one of the megacities or as a link between two large cities. Connections between small rural towns via rail is probably a bad idea because a lack of passengers may mean that it will simply be carting around a load of air from one place to another, which is a horrible waste of resources.

Cars overcome disadvantages of low carrying capacity and lower speeds by their immense flexibility. They from door to door, do not have scheduled stops or changes, share a common infrastructure with other modes of transport like busses, trucks, pedestrians, cyclists etc. The marginal cost of passengers in addition to the driver is almost zero. In a car, one starts when one wants to start, pauses when one wants to stop and continues when everybody is ready to go again. While this may sound like a utopian transport solution, a single look at the gridlocked roads and parking areas we have in large parts of the world today is enough to illustrate the problem with cars. The problem is that while the individual car may be an efficient way to get around, a collection of cars is not always the optimal solution. Cars clog up massive amounts of road space and it is even worse if people are not car sharing. The second problem with cars is that they cannot(as yet) be folded away and put into one’s pocket and therefore, huge swathes of land have to be sacrificed to build car parks where car simply sit all day and do nothing while their owners go about their business. Yet another minor problem is that throughout the journey, at least one passenger has to dedicate time to control the car, which may not be fun if a travelling group of four people want to play a four person card game.

Busses are a sort of compromise between cars and rail, in that they share infrastructure with other modes of transport and have higher carrying capability, thus lowering costs a bit and boosting flexibility. But they nevertheless suffer from having to stick to timetables and requiring a large number of passengers to reach their optimal operating level.

It is a general consensus nowadays that we cannot continue touting private transport as a solution for all travel requirements and that more public transport is the way to go in the future. The really fantastic thing would be if the transport system of the future will include a new mode of transport that will plug in the gaps and overcome the shortcomings of the current modes of transport. The requirements are stringent. The new mode will have to be cheap, must be available on demand, must go from door to door without stops and must be “public transport” in the sense that the passengers do not have to bother about parking, but can just get out and walk away at the end of the journey. A bit like a taxi without a driver, because the driver I am sure is the most expensive component of the taxi.

An interesting solution may be the technology marketed by Advanced Transport Systems a British company which is deploying a small network at London Heathrow airport and which should be functional from some time this year. A driver-less car running on a guided track, sort of like a personalised train carriage would combine the flexibility, convenience and low personal cost of cars with the share-ability of public transport. This system could possibly be adapted to a nationwide system by building guided paths along a country’s highways so that anyone from anywhere could take one of these taxis on those journeys into those areas not very well served by rail. The guided paths may also be able to run small vehicles during periods of low demand or larger bus like vehicles when demand is higher. By centralising the control of these vehicles it will be easier to react to changes in demand quickly and to ensure that customers get a non-stop journey almost every time they travel. By using the internet or mobile networks to do bookings, it may even be possible to get door to door service.

A combination of such a flexible system with efficient rail links on high traffic routes seems to be a much better solution than the transport system that exists today. Unfortunately, I do not hear too many people in power actively promoting such schemes. For a politician to put forth such an idea would probably be considered “courageous” and that is why no one has suggested it so far. I will however, remain optimistic and hope that such smart and flexible transport solutions will form an integral part of future transport systems.


Written by clueso

October 5, 2009 at 11:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] here to see the original:  The future of transport. « ramblings of an aimless mind This entry was posted in Object and tagged advanced, bit-like, british, driver, marked-as-such, […]

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