From bullet trains to driverless cars: where is transport going?

Saturday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Conservatory, Barbican Interrogating Megatrends

Thanks to cheap flights, online ticketing, increased car sales and the aspirations of the developing world, humans are traveling more than ever before.

In the UK in the past 20 years, road traffic has risen by 18.5 per cent, rail journeys by 80 per cent, and air passengers by over 100 per cent. The expansion of affordable, reliable and rapid transport is widely seen as crucial to economic growth and personal freedom. But instead of this increased flow of humanity being seen as a positive advance in personal mobility, it is regularly referred to as a potential problem. Why, when there are so many exciting opportunities opening up?

Milton Keynes will test driverless pods from 2015, while Google and others are finally offering the possibility of safer and smarter autonomous. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk has proposed superfast travel via trains in tubes in near-vacuum that could make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under an hour. And commercial, private space flight is on the cusp of reality, through firms like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, with plans already being drawn up for a UK spaceport. Will greater technical autonomy result in fewer accidents or, if there is a more blasé attitude to safety, will accidents rise? Will faster speeds be welcomed or will we romantically long for the joys of slow travel?

Skepticism about travel is also a serious barrier. At the same time as new means of travel are being created, Heathrow strains under the arguments for and against another runway. Environmentalists argue that we should aim to travel less, not more, with some suggesting that high-speed internet connections could allow us to conduct more and more business virtually and far more efficiently. Is this the techno futurism that Alvin Toffler envisaged as a ‘quantum leap forward’, something that now seems to challenge our dated reliance on old-fashioned cars, railways and powered flight?

Can innovative new technologies allow us to have it all - cheap, fast, low-carbon, speedy, convenient travel for everyone? Which technologies will succeed and which will lead us into a dead end? Is the novelty of travel simply wearing off; have we fallen out of love with the daily commute, the railway buffet car or the crowded departure lounge? Should we instead plan for a low-travel future with homes and businesses close to each other and longer trips replaced by teleconferencing? Surely, isn’t it simple common sense that reducing the need to travel is a good thing?

Watch the debate:

Chris Barton
product marketing manager, Jaguar Land Rover

Kevin McCullagh
founder, Plan

Chris Moody
chief business development officer, Transport Systems Catapult

Peter Stevens
designer, McLaren F1 road car, 1999 Le Mans-winning BMW, Lotus Elan, Jaguar’s XJR-15

Graham Stringer
Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton; member, House of Commons Transport Committee

Austin Williams
associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Austin Williams associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives
Recommended readings
The future of transport Kevin McCullagh, Battle in Print, 16 October 2014

Boris could make motorists pay for every mile they drive on London's roads to cut deaths from pollution

Mayor's plan would see fuel duty and road tax replaced with charge to use roads

Daily Mail, 11 September 2014

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