When it comes to transport, Scotland is no stranger to invention. After all, it was James Watt who revamped the steam engine in 1776, helping to spur on the Industrial Revolution and transform the world.
Pedal bicycles, macadamised roads, pneumatic tyres – all were conceived of by enterprising Scots and all revolutionised how people get around.
By contrast, the Scottish Government’s new National Transport Strategy plays it surprisingly safe, taking a ‘business as usual’ approach in outlining the vision for Scotland’s transport sector over the next 20 years.
A Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) working group with interests in transport met recently to discuss and respond to the draft strategy and agreed there is scope for it to be more data-driven and innovative.
Transport is experiencing another technological revolution. From the Uber you can order at the tap of a screen, to the integrated route planning offered by Google Maps, the ubiquity of the smart phone and its associated app culture means people have come to expect transport services to be conveniently accessed and ‘personalised’ to reflect their individual needs.
How do we determine what these needs are and design transport services to satisfy them? The answer lies in effective data gathering – and data sharing. Data interoperability allows government agencies, industry players and third sector organisations to work together to develop unified and responsive transport services, with benefits for passengers, the environment and the economy alike.
Transport for London recognised this when, in 2011, it gave software developers access to more than 80 live transport data sets including timetables, service statuses and disruption information. The move led to the creation of more than 600 apps that are used by 42 per cent of Londoners to simplify their journey planning, while boosting London’s economy by £130m annually.
Similarly, the Finnish government enacted its Act on Transport Services in 2018. The act mandates that any provider wishing to enter the Finnish mobility sector must make publicly available any data they hold on routes, ticket prices and other operational information. It also amalgamated all of its transport legislation into a single code covering all modes, facilitating additional integration across different forms of transport. Finland is now a global leader in smart mobility.
These examples clearly illustrate what is possible when data sharing is promoted to good effect. However, data is only one element of building a modern transport system. The sector continues to evolve at a rapid speed. By the time technologies have become widely adopted, others are already beginning to replace them. Ideas that were once relegated to the realm of science fiction – such as driverless vehicles and drone helicopters – are becoming a reality thanks to pioneering innovations in the field of artificial intelligence. These developments could hold the key to longstanding transport problems such as congestion, pollution and logistics. The National Transport Strategy should therefore also express a firm commitment to encouraging further experimentation and continuous improvement.
While imagining the future is exciting, it should not distract us from the challenges that face us in the present. Some people continue to pay too much and wait too long to access the transport services they need and the solutions to many of these issues are relatively quick and inexpensive. Basic service improvements, such as increasing the frequency of trains between major cities, would go a long way towards improving the reliability of our rail system and persuading more people to make the switch to public transport.
Transport has come a long way from steam trains and the system of the future is bound to look equally unfamiliar. However, the best way to adapt to change is to be at the forefront of it. By making best use of data and harnessing the potential of emerging technologies, Scotland can reclaim its title as a transport innovator. James Watt would approve.
The RSE’s advice paper on the National Transport Strategy can be found at www.rse.org.uk/advice-papers/national-transport-strategy
Professor Alan Alexander OBE, FRSE, FAcSS, Emeritus Professor of Local and Public Management, University of Strathclyde.