Oil dependency, with prices soaring. A booming world population. Congestion. Pollution. Climate change. The growth in number of megacities. By 2050, resources will be even more stressed than they are now, and the ways in which people move around will have to adapt and change. Marcel Rommerts, director general of mobility and transport at the European Commission, says: “We should not aim to reduce the movement of people, which would have a detrimental effect on society and the economy.”
With the decarbonisation of electricity generation, transport will be the biggest consumer of oil in 2050 and fuel costs and congestion will rise in the coming decades. The sector will be an important employer. But infrastructure must be invested in, at high cost, to create clean and efficient means of transport that can grow with an increasingly urbanised population.
An example is London, where the Tube rail system is being revamped to the tune of billions in a long-term project. But London has failed in its attempt to carry out this work in collaboration with the private sector, an expensive public-private partnership that ignominiously collapsed.
The question of who pays is therefore more pertinent than ever. Should infrastructure improvements be funded and carried out entirely by the public sector? And does better transport always provide better economic performance? Somehow, from all this, a balance of priorities must be struck. If the choice, for example, is between hardening existing transport infrastructure against climate change and developing a scheme such as the High Speed Two rail line, which of them should government prioritise?
Modal shifts could help to play a part in lessening the environmental impact of commuting in major cities. For instance, there has been a 7% shift to walking and cycling from public transport in the capital because of mayoral interventions, said Peter Wright, policy manager for strategy and planning at Transport for London, speaking at the recent European Union Hitachi Science and Technology Forum. Others anticipate a greater emphasis on eco-friendly train travel in the future, with increased electrification of lines powered by renewables-generated electricity or nuclear power.
It is anticipated that electric, hybrid, hydrogen-powered and fuel-cell vehicles will play a major role in helping to decarbonise road transport. But the influence of such vehicles is puny at present: for example, automotive supplier Bosch estimates that they will form only a tiny proportion of the vehicle parc come the end of the decade. Dr Bernd Bohr, Bosch board member, says: “We are going to see electrification by the end of the decade, but it is going to be in single digits in percentage terms, in terms of the vehicles – 2.5 million electric vehicles globally.”
The EU has set tough targets for carmakers to reduce the average carbon dioxide emissions from their fleets. It is anticipated that these will be tightened further to 95g/km in 2020. “We envisage long-term targets that we could move to 20g/km CO2 for cars by 2050,” says Françoise Nemry of the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, European Commission.
She adds that current measures are working. “I think regulation has been proved to be quite effective, and average emissions are being reduced. Ninety-five grams a kilometre by 2020 is a realistic target, and I think it has been shown to be spurring innovation within the automotive industry and improved energy efficiency. The target is a driver of innovation.”
In the rail sector, innovation will also play a part – although it’s difficult to say exactly what technologies will be seen on the trains of 2050. Tilting trains, such as Virgin’s Pendolino, would not necessarily have been envisaged 40 years ago, says Professor Roger Goodall of the department of electronic and electrical engineering at Loughborough University. “Tilt was one of those rather contentious things. Now it’s a mature technology, and all that uncertainty has been converted into standard practice.”
There have also been other improvements, including “transformational” changes to electrical drive systems used in trains, says Goodall. “We’ve enabled the old large DC traction motors to be replaced by lightweight AC motors driven by compact, high-efficiency power converters. That has really enabled distributed traction, rather than the big locomotive pulling a load of coaches. In terms of AC traction systems, I can recall people doing calculations demonstrating why we could not possibly have AC motors – the power converters would be too large and expensive – but it’s happened.” Train communications have changed as well, he says. “They were wrong, too, about communications using a train bus system – I don’t think that was even conceived at the time.”