It is better to travel...

There is no doubt that, as a species, we are addicted to travel. A cursory look at the figures confirms this diagnosis.

Cars: There are 34 million cars which travel 400 billion passenger miles in UK

Trains: There are about 4,000 trains which travel 980 million journeys totaling 25 billion passenger miles in UK

Planes: There are about 18,000 passenger airplanes which travel 1.5 trillion passenger miles globally

Travel enables us to work in a global environment. It allows us to relax and explore the world on holiday. It gives us the opportunity to experience different environments and cultures to those we were brought up in.

And this change has happened in only a few generations. 100 years ago, there were very few cars - probably around 10,000. Now there are about 35 million in the UK alone. 100 years ago, there were no planes - now there are over 312,000 - although less than 20,000 of them are the sort most of us fly on. 100 years ago, trains were the mass transit system of choice. Trains enabled national travel on an unprecedented scale and facilitated the industrial revolution by allowing distributed supply chains. In fact all forms of transport are not only liked by us - they are vital for modern commerce.

There is a downside - mass transit systems must be run as businesses too, and so everyone wants personal transport. This in turn leads to overcrowding of our roads and inefficiencies in the system.

There are two main ways to manage any system - and transport is no different.

•1. You can use command and control procedures where a central organisation tells the individual units where to be and how to move, or

•2. You can give the units all the information they need to self-organise.

For transport, which of these management methods you use depends on the mode of travel.

With aeroplanes, we have both. There are major routes where large passenger aircraft are controlled very precisely. Outside these routes - and under visual flight rules - it is pretty much up to the individual aeroplane to control its height, path and speed.

On the sea, it is a similar system. For large ships in crowded areas (like ports and the English Channel) there is a control system which avoids collisions and ensures the flow is maximised.

For trains, there are few degrees of freedom, so it is a command and control system.

With cars - which are increasingly identified with our own personal freedom - it would be a "courageous decision" to try to impose a full command and control system. But we do have some elements of such a system. We have traffic lights to control the flow in areas of complex geometry. And we have systems to catch those who do not obey these signals. We have speed limits to control the flow rates on most roads. And then we have systems to catch those who do not obey these limits. What we don't yet have is a means to give every driver the information he/she needs to make decisions which will result in smoother traffic flow.

The practice of co-operative behaviour is well known in nature. It is variously known as flocking, shoaling or swarming. This works because all of the animals involved want to get to the same place.

To equip the driver of a car with the information necessary to travel from the start of the journey to the correct endpoint but move through a series of "swarms" might lead to an increase in the number of accidents - since we cannot seem to use a mobile phone and drive safely, the added complexity of consulting a constantly updated stream of information might be problematic! However, much of the necessary work can be carried out largely automatically. There are already cars that can tell how far ahead and behind the nearest cars are. There are cars with systems to keep them within the lanes on our roads. What we seem reluctant to do is to surrender control of our cars to what is essentially a robot driver. If we could programme in the beginning and end of our journeys, then let our cars "take the strain" of driving off us, perhaps we could watch movies instead!

There are great improvements that could potentially be made - and this is looking at only one transport method. In the real world, when we move a person or a package around, it usually involves several forms of transport and the interchange gives rise to another type of inefficiency. To catch a plane, you would normally travel to the airport by car - with associated congestion and parking problems; by train - which unless you live next door to a railway station will involve walking (with bags?), a bus ride, a taxi ride, or a lift from a friend or family member.

Given that different forms of transport use different systems to maximise their efficiency, might it be possible to devise a system that allows end-to-end journey efficiency? There are already websites where you can plan how you would travel across London or even the UK. If that was coupled with a method for updating travellers on changes to their trip (a late bus, or increased congestion and so slower transit through part of their route) then perhaps we could increase the efficiency of our travel and lower our collective blood pressure!

From a talk on Future Transport, given at the Cheltenham Science Festival on 9 June 2010.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:10

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