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When you imagine public transport of the future, it’s easy to picture flying trains and driverless buses, hurtling around Fifth Element-style. But the reality of our public transport system in 2030 will likely be somewhat different — with the biggest changes those we can’t see at all.

For a start, we’ll probably be using public transport far less. “Traditionally the expectation has been that demand will increase, so the push was always to increase capacity,” says Marcus Enoch, professor of transport strategy at Loughborough University.

But rising house prices which have pushed young people out of London, an increase in jobs in outer areas, and a rise in remote working — albeit not at current levels — means that the traditional central London commute was already looking less like the future.

Covid looks likely to accelerate that change around home-working, with fewer people commuting daily to central offices after the nation’s experiment with remote working, which has shown potential economic benefits to business and wellbeing benefits to employees.

“People may travel less in peak hours because they can work at home,” says Enoch. “Maybe we will decide we need to travel smarter. We accept the capacity we have, and try to use it better.”

The coronavirus outbreak also means we will be taking far greater safety precautions when we travel. “I’ve talked to a lot of transit agencies that are focusing on solutions to allow people more space right now,” says David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, who specialises in transport innovation.

“In Taipei they have thermal temperature checks that you walk through to board the subway,” he continues. Screens measure commuters’ temperatures, and if they are higher than 38C they are turned away. “I think solutions like that may be around for a while. Then there’s also talk of more frequency on routes, to create more space.”

Longer-term, there’s a possibility that we may have become so used to travelling in a less squashed-in manner, that we aren’t prepared to go back to the pre-social distancing crush.

Lockdown has also focused minds on our relationship with the environment and levels of pollution, which may add to the pace of change. Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn has pledged to make the capital carbon-neutral by 2030 if he is re-elected. By this point “a lot of vehicles will either be electric or at least [have] lower emissions”, says Enoch.

In December last year, TFL revealed a five-year business plan that includes expanding the ultra-low emission zone, installing solar panels on selected underground, DLR and train depots, and having more than 2,000 zero-emission buses — the introduction of 12 low emission bus zones in 2018 has already reduced emissions of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitric oxide (NO) by an average of 90 per cent.

Battery trolleybuses, which charge from overheard wires while moving, have been in use in Rome since 2005, and could be another solution for the capital. As might a growth in active travel on foot, bike or perhaps scooter. London recorded its biggest-ever rise in cycle journeys in 2018, which, when coupled with the possible introduction of e-scooters, means that even when we do commute, in 10 years we may be less inclined to do so by bus or train.

Electric trains may be trickier. Currently just 42 per cent of the UK’s rail network is electrified, and while rail emissions make up just one per cent of UK transport carbon emissions, electric trains have lower fuel costs, are faster, and create less wear on tracks.

Several rail electrification projects have already been put on hold due to cost — and it’s difficult to predict the possible impact of a Covid-19 linked recession. Enoch suggests that either the funds won’t be available and projects will be paused, or, conversely, there will be investment in technology and infrastructure to help get the economy back on track.

Whether all trains have drivers by 2030 is still also up for debate. Driverless technology is a much-hyped transport development, and autonomous trains are already in place on some city’s metro systems including Paris, while Singapore is currently trialling driverless buses. However, Enoch is doubtful whether they will have replaced trains on the London Underground system.

A move to autonomous trains would not be welcomed by everyone — it seems likely that they would involve job losses, and it is not entirely clear whether the financial savings would make replacing existing trains worthwhile, he notes.

However, there could be benefits: “You may have efficiency savings if you can push [trains] closer together, and you may have better safety,” he says.

Driverless buses might also take a while to implement, given that they would require their own lanes — a tricky proposition in crowded London. If autonomous cars take off, however, we may see the introduction of smaller shared minibuses or taxis within the next 10 years, which could drop off multiple passengers off . “There have been quite a lot of these schemes but none has managed to crack the business model yet,” says Enoch.

The Firms Hoping To Transform Transport

British firms are among those who are working to transform public transport. Here are two with an eye on the future​

BLOCKDOX

This London-based company uses AI, machine learning and the Internet of Things to gather incredibly detailed data on how buildings are used. Its technology analyses how many people are inside a space, how they use it and where they linger, which in turn helps owners to develop new revenue opportunities, make savings and become more sustainable.

This technology has massive implications for how train and bus stations could be developed. As well as helping to end platform crowding, it might turn stations into places where you want to hang out.

Network Rail’s Tomorrow’s Living Station report envisages stations becoming vibrant community hubs in the decades ahead, and this type of data will help understanding of exactly what passengers want from them.

FAXI

Car-pooling app Faxi encourages groups of people to share a car and travel together. The idea is that people share within trusted groups such as colleagues, or parents with children at the same school.

It has already worked with businesses such as Gatwick airport to help employees identify which colleagues drive a similar route into work, and can team up to reduce the number of cars being used for commuting.

Employees are offered incentives such as reserved parking, or the most desirable parking spots, so you’re in and out of work fast. The result is fewer individual car journeys.

Toyota purchased a majority stake in the start-up last year and has plans to grow Faxi across Europe. 

One area where we can almost guarantee radical change, however, is behind the scenes, as better data collection and analysis allows transport providers to adapt services for passengers’ needs. “At the moment, transport is provided to you rather than designed for you,” says Mark Westwood, of Connected Places Catapult, a smart cities innovation hub.

“Better use of data will change that. We’ll be able to understand much better what the demand is, and the chances of there being the service you want when you want it will be much higher.”

In practice, this will mean fewer timetabled services and a more responsive transport system that can adapt quickly to rises and falls in demand. Hopefully, that will mean an end to waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes.

A system which responds to demand could provide a more equal service. A study by Giulio Mattiloli, a transport researcher at the University of Dortmund, found that around 50 per cent of low income households in the UK suffer from “transport poverty” due to car dependency linked to poor public transport provision.

“They shouldn’t be spending so much on running a car, but they do because they need to,” he says. Improved public transport in the areas people need it could help.

Better analysis of social media, camera and mobile phone data, could also allow transport providers to know more about the quality of your journey, and may allow them to offer you a discount if your train is late or crowded.

Integrated apps, such as the Whim app currently in use in Helsinki, will mean transport providers know how you use taxis, bikes and e-scooters as well as buses and trains. This is known as Mobility as a Service (MaaS), and is often hailed as the future of travel. Instead of flipping through several different apps to book trains, e-scooters and taxis, you book them all in one place and the data is shared.

“It will know whether you are prepared to pay a bit more so you get a coffee as part of the deal, or that you’re not that bothered about arriving really quickly and so don’t want to pay a premium for a high speed service,” explains Enoch. Other technologies that may be rolled out include heat sensors at stations, which can analyse expected numbers of people on platforms and adjust train scheduling to suit.

Such technology, however, also prompts big questions around privacy and the amount of data we will be happy to share about our daily movements. Once again, the coronavirus outbreak may play a big role in shaping our attitudes. “A few months ago, I would have said people will be reluctant to share,” says Westwood. “But now, with the contact tracing apps that are being developed, if a large percentage of people are happy to share information about who they’re in contact with day in day out, then our attitudes may change.


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