events archive

Back to the Future of Transport

This event is organised for the Imagine Festival by the Institute of Ideas and is part of the Battle of Ideas series.

6:00pm, Tuesday 17 June 2014, Transport Systems Catapult, The Pinnacle,170 Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes, MK9 1BP

Claire Fox, of the IoI and regular Moral Maze panelist, will chair this Battle of Ideas on the Future of Transport.

Debate starts at 7pm, reception and drinks from 6pm.

We have travelled a long way – both literally and metaphorically – from the days of the horse and cart horses or shanks pony.  Whether it’s living further from where we work, spreading our social circle wider, or going on more adventurous holidays (the world’s great cities and sights no longer restricted to the wealthy), people have consistently demonstrated their desire to live more mobile lives and embrace the benefits of faster, cheaper transport. Almost any measure of mobility, from car ownership to international flights, shows that we are covering more miles than our parents, and many more than our grandparents.  Meanwhile, the way in which the goods are transported has been revolutionised, with a choice between rail, road, sea or air, and refrigeration and ventilation allowing us access to ‘perishable goods’ from around the world from Spanish Strawberries to New Zealand Lamb, while the British spend approximately £1.5 billion pounds on cut flowers, with 85% of those imported from overseas. One would imagine that improving our mobility would be a ‘no-brainer’. And yet, transport of all sorts has become a political hot potato. 

There are cultural pressures to rein ourselves in. National infrastructure projects often run aground against the opposition of locals whose wishes seem to trump those of others who want easier travel. Problems of cost and ‘leaves on the track’ delays in relation to rail travel are the water cooler conversation of millions of commuters, yet HS2 has been widely disparaged as part of the problem rather than a possible solution.  Driverless tube trains and ticketless stations have led to strikes, with fears for safety and customer service having some popular resonance.  A third runway at Heathrow has sparked fierce debate: with anti-flying groups complaining that cheap air travel encourages us to make unnecessary journeys. Driving may be a fact of modern life, but the automobile has gone from symbolising individual freedom fifty years ago to being associated with pollution, congestion, urban gridlock, accidents and many critics look forward to seeing it consigned to history. Cyclists have been half-jokingly dubbed ‘the most powerful lobby in Westminster’ thanks to its popularity amongst metropolitan politicians, while the media attack petrol-heads as selfish and irresponsible and local government schemes encourage us to walk not drive, join car-pooling schemes, use energy-efficient public transport: anything but get in our cars. 

These controversies seem to capture today’s ambivalence about mobility.  Is there a danger of culturally undervaluing the benefits and freedom afforded by mobility? How should we make the case for faster and cheaper ways of moving goods and people about the planet more efficiently? And what should transport policy focus on in the future: energy-efficient public transport to tempt more people out of their cars? Smart technology that reduces unnecessary trips through videoconferencing and internet shopping? Will we stubbornly stick with gas-guzzlers until the oil runs out, or might innovation and intelligent mobility give us futuristic driverless cars, automated highway systems, vehicles powered by alternative fuels to fulfill the hopes once represented by our fine four-fendered friend? Whatever happened to commonplace utopian ambitions for the future as imagined by the Sixties generation: the jet-pack, the flying car, the monorail, the personalised Lear jet, Maglev taxis, long-haul flights by space shuttle? Are future transport visions in danger of being of the modest ‘feet on the ground’ variety, or might we hope for more exciting sci-fi possibilities?


Austin Williams – Associate Professor, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University
Dan Lewis – Senior Advisor Infrastructure Policy, IOD
Christian Wolmar - Writer and Broadcaster
Paul Zanelli -  Chief Technical Officer, Transport Systems Catapult
Kuldeep Gharatya - Head of Railway Systems, London Underground