What impact is this likely to have on our infrastructure?
We may see:
- A rapid decrease in the volume of single-destination, single-driver vehicles travelling to employment hubs during peak hours, with a corresponding increase in return journeys as empty vehicles return to the suburbs to reload
- reduction in shopping-related private travel, as autonomous vehicles further reduce the cost of small-volume home-deliveries
- the end of taxi driving as a business
- a sharp decline in private car ownership levels, particularly in urban areas
- a significant change in car user demographics – if a driver’s licence is no longer required will children become, or the elderly remain, car users? Will disabled car users be more empowered?
- the rise of a new industry dedicated to repurposing unused residential garages
- swathes of almost empty city centre car parks leading to repurposing and redevelopment opportunities
- fundamental changes to travel patterns, without the constraint of safe, secure, economical planning.
What impact would our pseudo-Uber ride sharing technology have on public transport systems such as buses? Depending on the individual travel requirements of each passenger, could buses move away from designated pick up and drop off locations and collect passengers solely on demand? What would the fundamental difference be between an ever-circulating autonomous taxi, owned and operated by car companies such as Ford, Volvo or even Yellow Cabs, and buses owned and operated by transport authorities or private operators? As part of a flexible and agile system you might simply stand outside your workplace, assuming you still occasionally travel to your workplace, and select the first reasonably-priced vehicle that offers to transport you home safely and quickly – and that could be an autonomous taxi, bus, uni-pod or rickshaw!
Changing the Way We Plan Infrastructure
None of these observations or thoughts are new. The same medium-term ‘what-if’ scenarios are being considered in the context of water supply, waste water treatment, power generation, storage, distribution, and across many other industries.
But what if demand does drastically alter or even cease to exist? By the time it is operational, will the infrastructure we are currently planning or designing be resilient enough to respond to demand?
An arterial road upgrade, currently in its planning stage, may be designed by late 2017, procured by mid-2018 and completed by 2021-22. Will demand have altered so much that the forecasted congestion will have reduced, been diverted elsewhere or have been eliminated entirely?
The key variable will be the rate of change and how quickly we, as users, adopt and embrace new technological advances. Will all urban dwellers respond equally positively to no longer needing to drive and own a car? Will our take-up rates be as rapid as our iPhone and Uber adoption, or will we experience a more gradual and considered rate of change over a period of 10 or 20 years?
So how do we design resilient infrastructure for the future if we cannot answer all of these questions today? The traditional boundaries between planning, design and construction may need to blur and shift.
Current planning projects may need to consider a wider range of criteria and potential future scenarios. Designs may need to cater for a range of modes or outcomes. Infrastructure planning should perhaps continue in parallel with design so that, if and when data trends indicate a particular option is becoming more likely, the design can be altered to accommodate this development at a far later stage in the project than would currently be the case.
Changing the Scope in Construction
When it comes to the construction phase, should contracts be structured so the scope can be significantly varied later in a project’s development? Perhaps it should. If it emerges at construction phase that the business case for a project no longer stacks up, due to rapid and significant changes in demand, a loss of profit payment to the constructor might be more palatable to an enlightened owner than wasting ten times the amount on a ‘white-elephant’ piece of infrastructure.
As we contemplate an exciting and challenging future for infrastructure planning, we must be aware of the intricacies and pay closer attention to evolving technologies – whether we are planners, engineers, scientists, accountants or lawyers.
Developing a greater understanding of how emerging technology and changing consumer demand will impact on transport infrastructure planning is essential for designing and developing resilient and adaptable infrastructure, where flexibility and agility will be key to our future success.