One of Scotland’s largest transport projects, the £3 billion dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness, is under way and set for completion by 2025. While this and other road and rail upgrades are unquestionably needed and will be widely welcomed, it is worth considering how far they will go towards addressing Scotland’s longer term transport needs. Given the rapidly changing transport landscape, are we spending public money in the right areas?
The biggest difficulty for any government in managing major transport investments and improvement projects is planning for the unknown. Infrastructure projects often take decades to roll out and it can be difficult to predict what new technological solutions and opportunities will emerge in that time. But there are some practical considerations that should influence today’s investment decisions.
The most obvious is ensuring all new and existing transport infrastructure can accommodate the Scottish Government’s aim to phase out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 and more imminent plans to introduce low emission trial zones in Scotland’s four main cities.
The Scottish Government has visibly increased support for electric vehicles. Local authorities will need to get involved not least to ensure the installation of sufficient charging infrastructure right across the country. A number of solutions are already available or being trialled so decisions will be needed around which to adopt. This will all place further pressure on already constrained budgets – while governments will face reductions in transport-related tax receipts – and planning processes will need to facilitate the necessary changes.
Edinburgh and Glasgow are considering reducing cars in the city centre and, if implemented on a permanent basis, this will impact on transport investment requirements. With autonomous (often referred to as ‘driverless’) vehicles looking increasingly likely to become a common feature on our streets, we should also consider what kind of roads will be needed to accommodate these and where we want them to be used.
Many cities are considering these issues – Copenhagen has an intelligent traffic system which includes smart street lights and variable message signs and gives priority to bikes and buses. Helsinki, meanwhile, has introduced a fully integrated ticketing app which covers all forms of transport, public and private, available on pre-pay or pay as you go.
The growing shift towards Mobility as a Service or MaaS is perhaps one of the most significant influencers on transport investment decisions. MaaS is the integration of all transport options (including public transport, car-sharing, bike-sharing, taxis, and car rental) into a single on-demand service. The user has one internet-based point of access and a single electronic payment channel – so further investment in wifi networks and 4G/5G services across Scottish cities will become a priority. Greater consideration should also be given to (i) how data is used and (ii) how to guard against potentially highly disruptive and costly security breaches.
MaaS benefits transport operators by offering them access to improved user information, creating new opportunities to serve unmet demand. For users, particularly in urban areas, it provides an alternative to private car ownership via cheaper, more convenient and more sustainable transport options. The anticipated reduction in private car activity within towns and cities will offer longer term redevelopment opportunities for car parks and we may see changes to kerb space use.
MaaS will likely also create a shift in the requirements for public transport provision. By potentially reducing the demand for state-provided public transport within city centres the cost of those services outside major urban areas will rise. These are, however, the areas where MaaS is less likely to flourish making continued provision of public transport vital. We should also be mindful of other possible consequences such as the risk of marginalising people in remote areas and/or those who are already disadvantaged by the digital divide.
While both current and proposed Scottish transport infrastructure projects will provide very welcome progress towards meeting our existing needs, it is vital that investment decision-makers are mindful of the continued changes that technology will drive and, more importantly, give thought to what sort of society we want to live in. The changing trends in the type of transport we use and the ways we interact with transport providers make it essential for governments to work closely with the private sector to ensure we invest in infrastructure which supports the wider population over the long term.
Eleanor Lane, partner at law firm CMS