The way ahead

Over the last few months I’ve been involved with several organisations exploring the way disruptive innovation is transforming the ways we get around.

Of course, many people will feel that they are already experiencing far too much disruption to their journey to work, what with congestion and regular signalling failures on the trains.  However “disruptive innovation” refers to the way in which innovators successfully challenge powerful incumbents  by focussing on ignored customers and needs. The classic example is the way digital photography took over from film cameras,  or Netflix took over from the likes of Blockbuster Video.  Initially neither was very good.  Now they are totally dominant.

It’s becoming clear that we’re facing a new wave of disruptive innovation in the transport sector.

If you’ve spent your life designing, selling, sitting in or thinking about cars, you tend to think of transport innovations being about better ways to move around a steel box with someone or something inside. This is why the industry buzz is all about electric cars, self driving cars and delivering parcels by drone.  Although many of these innovations will undoubtedly happen, I don’t think they will change things nearly as much as the less glamorous but more disruptive innovations that are growing beneath the surface. These are fundamentally changing our relationship with the car.

It’s difficult for the automotive industry to recognise this, but there is a significant “modal shift” away from individual car ownership, driven by a combination of cost, congestion and the growing availability of more attractive alternatives. This is blurring of the boundaries between public and private, ownership and sharing.  Smart innovators are getting rich, and our cities and transportation systems are starting to change startlingly fast.

Overall we’re driving less.  A report by the UK department of Transport showed that the proportion of men in their 20s who have a driving licence has fallen by 20% in 15 years.  A recent YouGov poll showed that a quarter of Londoners who used to own a car no longer do so. They “call an Uber”  or join a car club, or use a mixture of public, private and shared transport.

In Cambridge, congestion, and 30 years of steady investment in cycling infrastructure means that cycling often seems much more attractive than driving.  As a result, 35% of journeys to work in Cambridge are by bike. The new multi-storey bike park at Cambridge Station is already nearly full.

New software platforms and the data behind it make “multi-modal” journeys very attractive and easier to plan. For example a typical commute might consist of a short car journey, then a longer train journey with a bike for the last mile or two.  Now that we all have mobile IT, a train or bus journey with a seat and Wi-Fi is very often more attractive than having to driving oneself.  It’s not surprising that on some of the West Coast mainline train routes, demand is growing at 10% a year.

Businesses are responding and relocating.  For example, a few years ago Microsoft moved their Cambridge office from a site near  the M11, to near Cambridge Station.  Google’s brand new UK HQ is beside Kings Cross Station.

Innovators are developing neat solutions to reduce the horrors of commuting into cities for those for whom neither train nor bike is feasible.  Many of these are based on using mobile data analysis and software platforms to provide responsive shared services.

For example Bridj (in Boston and Bristol) tackles congestion by operating a pop-up flexibly routed minibus service. You use a mobile app to reserve a seat to your approximate destination, but the precise routing and drop off point depends on the most efficient way to get the passengers where they want to go, and the traffic congestion in the way.

UberPool (launched in London in November 2016), allows people to share an uber ride, giving passengers directions about where to walk to in order to be picked up.

Deliveries are estimated to cause something between 15 and 50% of congestion in cities.

Urban Logistics specialist Outspoken Delivery in Cambridge, Norwich and Edinburgh, consolidates deliveries for national courier firms such as TNT and APC (and for local companies) and then uses cargo bikes and electric vehicles to do fast, efficient, low emission, “last mile” deliveries.  Business is booming, which is why you’ll often see their new electrically assisted trikes speeding through Cambridge with a cargo bay the size of a wardrobe!

In the US, High Occupancy Toll Lanes are popping up all over the place.  These HOT lanes are free for buses and carpools, but those driving alone can use them by paying a toll via electronic transponders. The cost per mile ranges from about 15p-£1/mile and is adjusted in real-time to keep the traffic density low enough to maintain a 45mph average speed.  They’re so effective and popular they’re spreading round the US.

An innovative place like Cambridge really ought to be playing a leading role in transport innovation. How about a HOT lane on the A14?  Or persuading Bridj to operate in Cambridge? Or giving the guided bus a tunnel so it can get people from the outskirts to the city centre in just a few minutes?   Our tech companies  and investors should rise to the challenge!

In a few months time, we will have an elected Mayor and a combined local authority with devolved powers to run Housing and Transport in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region.  I just hope he, or she, will support businesses wanting to try out some of these promising innovations, rather than clinging to a car dominated past.