Modernising London

Keith Prince of the London Transport Committee explains to Alex Kreetzer how London can prepare and support future mobility. 

Like many cities around the world, London still remains in the traditional sense of transportation. It is slowly moving over to more efficient transportation through electric vehicles and smart infrastructure, although this kind of innovation needs to be supported by governments and local authorities for it to organically grow into a hyper-efficient ecosystem. I speak to London Transport Committee Chairman Keith Prince and ask him how we can bring a fresh approach to our public transportation networks. “In order to achieve this vision within our public transportation network, London must allow innovation from outside of the sector, which will disrupt our dated systems and help London transform into a mobility hub,” he says. This is the first - and arguably the most important - step in allowing future systems into existing processes, helping London move freely. The city has to move towards more efficient buses and taxis but, Prince says, “the key is to allow the private sector to innovate,” much like a more agile private corporation would.  

We have seen so many issues in central London, whether that is bus and train delays, stoppages due to the ‘Beast From The East’ or general inefficiencies within the public transportation network. Prince believes that, in order to overcome this and improve public transport in London, it is important to invest into the latest innovations. “It’s crucial that we continue to invest in our public transport – to use the latest technology and to update our tired infrastructure,” he says. “When it comes to severe weather, it is very hard to justify the expenses needed to cope with a few days of it. In other countries, where they have longer periods of extreme weather, it is easier to justify the significant cost of, for example, snow ploughs, but that is not true in London.” I think what is most important here is the government’s approach to building the appropriate infrastructure to support expansion in this area. This becomes very difficult to change as it is out of the hands of the main mobility drivers, so there is a need for this to be addressed before London falls behind.  

T is for technology  

Transport for London (TfL) is the local government body responsible for the transport system in London, which means that they have the power and authority to make the right changes to the city’s ecosystem. It has responsibility for London's network of principal road routes, the London Underground, London Overground, Docklands Light Railway and TfL Rail, as well as London's trams, buses and taxis. Although this makes it easier for general organisation, as the umbrella corporation can directly modify each area of London’s transport network, TfL has struggled to redesign transportation in the city which has become problematic. “TfL is, far too often, like an oil tanker – extremely slow to turn around or adapt,” adds Prince. “At the London Assembly, the Transport Committee recently released a report entitled Future Transport that was, in part, inspired by the lack of detail on the future of transport in the Draft Mayor’s Transport Strategy.” This illustrates the lack of focus on innovation within London’s transport network, while cities across Europe and Asia push ahead into future mobility within public transport.  

It is very difficult for governments and transport authorities to predict where this is all going, although it is possible to forecast and prepare for a shift in mobility on many different levels. Whether it is public transport, e-hailing or bike services, TfL can create an integrated solution to enable growth across the entire mobility sector. “TfL should not necessarily be trying to second guess the market, but it should anticipate that the market will develop in unexpected ways and seek to become more nimble,” continues Prince. “For example, Boris Bikes have been a big success, but the expansion of dockless bikes might well mean that the case for the public sector having its own cycle scheme disappears over the next few years. That doesn’t mean that TfL wouldn’t have a role, but it would be coordinating with London’s boroughs and ensuring that there is connectivity, interoperability, decent London-wide coverage and that there are clear rules so that bikes are not dumped in unsuitable places.” Through this approach, the government can work as a supporting partner to both the private and public transport modes, which should breathe new life into London.  

Relieving the busy city

The need to own your own car is decreasing, thanks to mobility services such as e-hailing and carsharing, however these are in fact adding more cars to cities. These services are taking people off public transport and putting them into cars - increasing the amount of traffic on our roads. However, this can be overcome through collaboration with transport authorities, to create seamless transport through public and private sectors. Prince thinks that there are many opportunities in this area: “There is a need for government to legislate and put in certain controls. However, I believe there is an opportunity to harness the private sector and gain from the flexibility of its innovation.” 

The expansion of these services will allow more efficient use of London’s road space, reducing demand rather than what we are seeing with mobility services which is using pricing to constrict supply. “Given London’s expanding population and the difficulty in terms of both financing and feasibility of increasing London’s road space, there is a clear need to make more efficient use of existing road space,” continues Prince. By utilising car sharing, or as Prince calls it “car clubs,” we can relieve congestion and pollution in our busy city, although there needs to be support for these clubs that allows them to thrive. In addition, as Prince says in his report ‘Cutting Congestion: The Case for Car Clubs’, “the Mayor should act to help
facilitate expansion, working with London’s boroughs and London’s car clubs to significantly expand the numbers of car club parking spaces available. Secondly, the Mayor could also play an important role in driving forward the setting up of an open access approach to car club parking spaces. In so doing he should encourage car clubs to allow point-to-point car club journeys.” 

What’s next for London

Looking further afield, self-driving cars will save time and effort from someone having to drive and are safer because they will not make human mistakes in traffic. They will also choose the most economical route, creating greener cities and improving day-to-day life in the city. Although this is much further down the line to what we are seeing with mobility services, this will be the catalyst for the most significant change in the city, removing the need for a vehicle and operating alongside - or as - the public transportation network. “I think there is room for both to coexist,” agrees Prince. “It seems likely that the move will be away from personal ownership and towards viewing cars as a service to be purchased on demand. The sunk cost of owning a depreciating asset, that sits outside your house for the vast majority of the time may well become less and less attractive.” 

So how does London support this drastic shift over to future mobility? Well, Prince says that it is not so much about investment from the government, but allowing the innovative private companies and startups to do what they do best, allowing them to develop and thrive in London. “I support basic regulation and allowing the private sector to take the lead. The Government’s role should be that of a facilitator.” This will see an influx of innovation hit the roads of London in the near future, with a range of services that will allow a safe, efficient and cleaner city. “I suspect we’ll see a lot more journey sharing, on-demand buses, dockless bikes and, in all likelihood, ideas that have as yet not even been considered. The next decade will be a fascinating time for transport in London,” predicts Prince.  

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