The government is promising a technological revolution—is it up to the job?by Steve Bloomfield / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
Anyone who has recently travelled on the perversely-named Pacers—a rickety bus-on-rails that is still used to ferry people between Liverpool and Manchester (when it’s not cancelled, of course)—might raise an eyebrow at the idea of the Department for Transport (DfT) embracing new technology. But, as the transport minister Jesse Norman explains, a “complex wave of new technologies” could genuinely change the way we travel.
The good news is that transport is one of the few policy areas where both government and parliament, in the form of the Transport Select Committee, are at least engaging constructively with the impact new technology might have on the future. Serious discussion about automation, robotics and artificial intelligence has been sadly lacking elsewhere.
Yet it is one thing to set out a strategy, as the government did in March, but quite another to explain how that strategy will be delivered. And let’s face it, when it comes to delivery, the DfT, as Lilian Greenwood points out, does not exactly have a stellar record.
Perhaps it would be best if the DfT, once it’s agreed a strategy, left the delivery to others. One of many aspects missing from this discussion is devolution. Having a digital system like the Oyster card that encompasses every type of transport is a nice idea, but Britain’s fractured, privatised transport system makes it tricky to create an overarching payment system. Would local authorities have the power to force private companies to accept these changes?
Where central government undoubtedly has a role is in the realm of regulation. From Citymapper to Uber, there are a range of apps that many residents of towns and cities now rely upon. Yet regulation has been slow to catch up—the review promised by Norman, himself an avid user of new technology, is to be welcomed.
Transport, despite its importance to our everyday lives, has rarely been treated with the seriousness it deserves by governments of all stripes. There have been eight transport secretaries in the past 12 years—six of whom only managed to stay in office for a year. If the government is at last serious about making the most of that complex wave of new technologies, it needs to think carefully about how-, and by who, it is to be implemented.
The journey from Pacers to self-driving cars, promises to be long and bumpy.