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Looking ahead to 2018: How Greater Manchester will strive to innovate transport

The man leading innovation efforts to improve Greater Manchester’s transport network believes 2018 could be one of the most exciting years to date as the region looks to embrace autonomous vehicles, push ahead with pedal power and introduce new app technology like never before to make journeys for the millions of users that bit more enjoyable and easier.

Rafael Cuesta is the man tasked with innovating the region’s transport network and after three years in the role, Cuesta is enthused by what 2018 holds. Since taking up the position, the tech chief has been key to increasing the conversations with companies across Europe to ensure Greater Manchester is at the forefront of technological advancements.

Innovating has never been higher on the agenda for policy-makers. The addition of Andy Burnham as Greater Manchester mayor has led to a renewed impetus for improvement after he set out his stall for a major overhaul of the region’s transport network. The former Labour minister took up the post after his successful campaign in May 2017 and has been keen to pressurise Whitehall on devolving powers up north. Just last month, Burnham said problems with transport in the north could “no longer be ignored” and announced the creation of a Strategic Transport Board, which will monitor transport projects and ensure decisions are made in line with joined-up services. 

The development and testing of autonomous vehicles will be a big part of 2018, according to TFGM’s head of innovation. The region will be running a number of cutting-edge demonstrator projects working with national and European partners to understand the potential implications of new technologies for our future transport system. Approximately £5m is being invested into Project Synergy by the government, which in addition to the three autonomous electric vehicles travelling between Stockport train station and the airport, will also see three ‘pods’ transporting passengers around the airport terminals.

“It’s important for us to not just produce these vehicles but also to work out how best they can supplement our current transport network," Cuesta said. "Getting individual autonomous vehicles to talk to each other is a huge challenge, and public transport can help with this as we have a very good transport network.   Autonomous shuttles for example can help us explore different ways of linking Metrolink stations to business parks across Manchester. Part of the testing this year will involve ‘platooning’ which will involve tests at speeds of 70mph with pods just a couple of metres apart.”

Pursuing greener alternatives when it comes to transport is high on the agenda for any authority, so the appointment of former Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman as Burnham’s cycling and walking commissioner has emphasised the importance of Manchester becoming more sustainable. Approximately 2,000 bikes were also introduced by Beijing-based experts Mobike last summer as part of a long-term plan to boost the number of cycling commuters - and tackle congestion and dangerous pollution.

“Investing in cycling across Greater Manchester will help improve our health, our air quality and reduce congestion,” Cuesta said. “But 2018 does pose challenges for us in how we expand our current offer as there is not enough for everyone. We also need to figure out how we reward good behaviour of users and penalise bad behaviour in order to improve the operation.”

The region is keen to encourage more of the 1.8 million short trips of 1km or less to be made on foot and by bike. Working with Boardman, a cycling and walking strategy and supporting infrastructure plan is being prepared for Greater Manchester, which will set the scene for continued investment in active travel infrastructure and measures to encourage their uptake.

Finally, Cuesta is also very excited by the end of trial testing for innovative apps which will make travelling around much easier. The region has shown a real willingness to incorporate augmented reality (AR) apps like ‘Buzzin’ which helps visitors explore the latest activities the city. The app also includes a ‘one button click’ feature to pay for travel. The Mobility-as-a-Service (Maas) system is also a key tool that decision-makers are keen to adopt. Maas is a bundle package intended to automatically arrange transport via car sharing, cycle hire, taxis or other forms of public transport.

“Maas is an area that is the most exciting element of transport that is happening around the world,” Cuesta added. “It basically allows users to travel across several modes of transport via a single booking. Ultimately, it’s about making travel options not just more sustainable but easier for users.”