• Sustainability
    • Environmental

Getting from A to B: How technology could transform the UK’s transport network

  • Article

Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) models of public transport promise an exciting redefinition of urban travel, whether targeting increased congestion or stripping back on pollution. But what challenges remain when applying them to the UK’s complicated infrastructure, and what role can HSBC UK play?

The story of large-scale urbanisation is a global one. Over the past half-century, the shift of populations from rural to urban centres has been marked – even causing infrastructural shocks in the case of many of Asia’s supercities. Today now sees between 56% and 80% of the global population opting for city life with little sign of this shift slowing down . The resulting carbon impact is now recognised as an urgent problem that cannot be ignored.

Urban transport remains an area where greenhouse gas emissions are still an issue, with real estate and mobility contributing 65% to overall emissions – cities are applying a variety of smart strategies to decarbonise through a combination of technology, big data and innovative town planning.

The UK in particular shows all the characteristics of a highly-developed market that needs to retro-fit a transport infrastructure which will be fit for purpose well into the 21st Century and beyond.

The opportunity behind MaaS

Reducing congestion, improving the travelling customer experience and providing safe, environmentally-sustainable transit options all lie at the heart of various MaaS initiatives, many of which are making real progress across the UK.

For Simon Warburton, Transport Strategy Director of Transport for Greater Manchester, the end goal is key. The transport initiative he espouses for the region is ambitious but focused.

“We wanted to set out very clearly what we saw as being the long-term future of transport in our city region,” he explains. “In setting out our vision we set out three policy pillars – supporting stable economic growth, addressing the environmental challenges and it was about improving the quality of life for all.”

This means smarter integration between modes. One such initiative in Manchester includes a Dutch-style cycle lane that runs alongside the bus lane – a way to encourage traffic away from the city centre. A similar attempt at integration is articulated by Go Ahead Group-owned Brighton & Hove Buses. Its Head of Innovation Strategy, Patrick Warner, has been working to bring the group's bus and rail services together across the central southern coast to the capital area on a single app based MaaS platform. The aging technology of a rigid franchised rail network creates technical challenges but the principle is an enlightened one that could provide a trustworthy back-office system for multiple modes of sustainable travel, as well as bringing health and fitness benefits, particularly for active travellers who by definition need to get to and from the bus stop or station first.

"We know that people who use public transport regularly tend to be fitter and healthier," he argues. "The more we encourage that, the better it becomes as a more integrated part of your life."

Uber has been the poster boy for software-led transport that transformed the private-hire model for the 21st Century. Though not a player in the bus sector, its head of Cities for UKI, Kieran Harte, still sees a role for the business in more ‘public’ transport models following its Uber Pool variant, promoting shared rides. For him, the objective also needs to be about “bringing the same magical experience” into new modes such as e-bikes. If convenience, price and comfort are addressed within a high-tech and eco-friendly context, it’s a winning formula.

The hurdles and how to overcome them

But still many barriers remain. The sheer rate of urbanisation, for one, is a self-imposed decision by populations – and expecting people to give up their cars just because they are in the suburbs of a major conurbation remains a difficult ask.

Secondly, people need the incentive to change habits on a massive scale. And thirdly, who actually owns the keys to such radical change, whether that is local government, private sector data-tech, or national policy-driven institutions?

The law of unintended customer consequences is well illustrated by Helen Steiger of DG Cities, an urban innovation company exploring sustainable urban business and development models. She describes how autonomous grocery delivery trials – while they might meet a number of sustainability objectives – don’t account for the social pleasure people can receive by going to the shops.

“There is an argument that this technology could limit the amount of walking that the average person could do and would reduce the amount of active travel which in the end is what you want to promote,” she argues. “But for those who have limited mobility, who could really benefit from this service, they would actually still struggle to carry out this task fully. We need to try this technology now and study what could happen, because otherwise we have this situation of unintended consequences.”

On the question of who owns the long-term future, Simon Warburton is clear in the case of Greater Manchester: “You get political changes, you certainly get your political change at national level. The way in which we deal with that is through clarity in terms of where we ultimately want to get to. From that, we have developed a pipeline of interventions …that we want to bring forward.

“That means that we can then hold to our direction but be pragmatic in terms of securing funds in different ways from central government or other actors that continue to keep us on the right path.”

Patrick Warner sees merit in a national bus strategy to reflect other modes that have had the benefit of central government attention.

“Much of the industry, led by ourselves at Go Ahead, have been calling for a UK bus strategy. So we've had strategies for road, air and rail with varying success, but there's been nothing for buses as it's always been considered as the local problem.

“We've had quite a good reputation for being a proactive partner with local government to work together and collaborate to deliver a service that works in Brighton and Crawley for example. Personally, I'll always think collaboration through partnership is going to be the best way of doing it – but with a strong strategic direction there which public policy can support if they look a little bit further than the next 5-year term”

HSBC UK’s role in sustainable success

The commercial banking world is key to backing sustainable transport solutions across the globe – areas which many are on record as declaring urgent action required, to stem the flow of good money on wasteful practices.

According to the HSBC UK, recently published, “Future Cities – Cut Congestion, Lift Growth” report, looking at the global cost of not resolving the issues of transportation today, urban congestion is costing an estimated US$1.7trn per year in the developed world.

Robert King, Head of Sustainable Finance for HSBC UK, describes the challenges as “a huge opportunity for us to support our clients in the transition to low carbon, and the new business models that might appear around it such as MaaS. It’s also about our understanding the challenges they are facing and how we can help.”

The launch of the Green Loan - available for the minimum loan of £300,000 - says Robert, will be an increasingly relevant feature in the sort of support HBSC will provide for future growth across client companies.

While Mobility-as-a-Service may not be the sole saviour of future transport options that finally reflect comfort, cost-effectiveness and sustainability, it is clear that the opportunities afforded by innovation in technology – as well as better use of data – should put far-sighted businesses in a prime position to help revolutionise lives in transport.

For more information on sustainability and HSBC UK support, speak to your Relationship Manager today.

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