A Global Village
Issue 12


Transport: Platform for the Global Village

Prof. John Miles, University of Cambridge

Transport shapes our society, and therefore, our lives. As the ability to travel has increased, society has evolved to take advantage of the benefits this has bestowed. As a result, our patterns of life today are quite different to those of 50 and 100 years ago. We no longer live ‘round the corner’ from our immediate families (not necessarily a good thing), and the fresh food on our shelves –which comes from all over the world - is replenished daily. We can travel abroad on holiday for less than it costs to take a holiday in our own home country, and our decision to buy cut flowers next week may enable a worker in Africa to have a job tomorrow. Of course, not all of these things bring benefit to all, but the complex workings behind the scenes are simply a reflection of today’s Global Village at work.

Cheap and efficient transport links are the foundations of this new world. Like all things, they come with good and bad attributes. It is good that we can travel safely and easily, but it is not so good that in doing so we consume energy and pollute the atmosphere. Our challenge, as always, is to build on the good and remove the bad.

The emphasis throughout the history of transport has been on the provision of faster and cheaper travel through the invention of new machines. We only have to reflect on the invention of the wheel, the age of the sea, the age of the railway, the age of the car, and the age of air transport to see how this is true. But the future holds something entirely different. We are entering the age of connection – not a transport medium in itself, but an enabling technology which has the power to transform.

The ability to exchange and process vast quantities of information on the move and in real time opens the door to another great advance in the history of transport - and not a moment too soon. Our success in creating new and better transport machines has led to consumers wanting more and more access to transport, with the result that we create vastly more consumption, pollution, and congestion. As a consequence, our roads, railways, and airspace now appear to be operating at, or near, their breaking points. This is a frightening prospect – economies that do not move do not work, and dying economies wreak social havoc.

To provide more infrastructure in response to more demand has been shown on many occasions to be self-defeating. The demand simply grows to fill the available space, and all the bad things about transport correspondingly scale up. In today’s environment we need a more holistic solution. Can we enable the increased movement of people and goods without adding to the available infrastructure? Indeed, can we do this whilst, at the same time, scaling down those undesirable aspects which we all deplore?

This is the goal of ‘Intelligent Mobility’ – a subject which looks to the new generation of ‘intelligent systems’ to resolve these apparent conflicts. It is a subject which has begun to receive a lot of attention recently and two articles in this issue of A Global Village explore some different possibilities. The changes which this approach could bring are profound, and our articles touch just a small fraction of what might be delivered in future. But this is enough to illustrate the potential and it is clearly an exciting prospect!

Prof. John Miles is the Arup/Royal Academy of Engineering Professor of Transitional Energy Strategies at the University of Cambridge. He is interested in the development of affordable, low carbon energy technologies and business models.

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