Infrastructure investment can transform the economy and people’s lives

Investing in transport infrastructure brings wider economic, social and environmental benefits and helps transform lives argues John Perry.

The economic vitality of a city, region and an entire nation hinges on the ability to move people and goods quickly, efficiently and sustainably. Fast, effective transport facilitates the flow of ideas and capital required for commerce, and supports the growth of important social networks.

Transport hubs are hotspots for economic activity. In an increasingly urbanised world, inter-urban rail and mass rapid transit interchanges become fulcrum points for growth and enterprise, creating economic ecosystems that will attract large corporations and services companies, SMEs and start-ups, and universities and research institutes.

Improved local connections are routes to prosperity for deprived areas. They support regeneration and help to rebalance economic growth. And fully integrated transport not only brings employment and education opportunities within easy reach, it improves access to healthcare and recreation, contributing to people’s wellbeing and encouraging healthy lifestyles.

Disruptive digital technology

Transport infrastructure is on its own journey - a journey of transformation through disruptive digital technology, smart infrastructure, big data, alternative energy sources and changing cultural attitudes, all of which will change how infrastructure is planned, managed and used.

Personalised travel information and journey planning systems, integrated scheduling of public transport and smart ticketing systems are cutting congestion and making multi-modal journeys simpler. 

The UK rail industry is looking to find space for up to 40% more services on existing track through new traffic management systems. Similarly, digitisation is leading to the development of more sophisticated air traffic control systems that can boost capacity in the skies. 

On the ground, airports are investing in smart systems that are in constant communication with passengers’ personal devices. As well as improving security, the real-time data generated can be used to cut queues, improving throughput and getting travellers to their destinations quicker, or giving them more time to spend in retail and leisure outlets, if they so choose, which is also good for business.

Smart motorways, which employ technology to actively manage the flow of traffic, are increasing the capacity of strategic road networks while the roll-out of vehicle charging points will support the transition to low carbon electric vehicles (EVs), which will lower air and noise pollution. But it’s essential cross-sector links to the energy sector are established as it’s not vehicle technology that will inhibit the development of EVs but whether there is sufficient electricity generating and distribution capacity.

Mobility as a service

Autonomous vehicles will improve road safety, and bring about a reduction in vehicle ownership. In the future more people will consume mobility as a service. After all, why buy a car which will be idle for most of the day when you can summon a car whenever you need one via your smartphone? Self-driving vehicles will significantly increase the independence of people with disabilities, too.

Increased provision of public transport, especially in the evenings and at weekends, will further decrease the desire to purchase a car. Fewer vehicles on the road will not only cut congestion, it will free up land allocated to parking in densely populated areas for other uses such as schools, hospitals and housing. 

The logistics sector is also adopting automated technologies that will improve efficiency and cut carbon emissions. Home deliveries by drone could one day be commonplace and the cargo ships of the future might be crewless.

The results of making infrastructure, vehicles and other forms of transport work harder are better return on investment and lower carbon emissions per £ spent. The reliability and efficiency of transport networks ultimately depend on the resilience of infrastructure. Good asset management, especially in response to climate change, is a key area, not just for the economy but for society as a whole.

The impact of any investment in transport infrastructure should, therefore, not be measured purely in terms of cost-effectiveness. The full value will only be captured if you consider the wider economic, social and environmental benefits. 

Dr John Perry is global transport leader at Mott MacDonald.