‘Back to the Future’ study informs new Government report

A University of Leicester professor has made a major contribution to a new Government report – The Foresight Future of Mobility – being launched today (Thursday 31 January).

Simon Gunn, Professor of Urban History in the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester, wrote the evidence review The history of transport systems in the UK, which forms part of the report being launched in Westminster.

The Government Office for Science’s Foresight Future of Mobility report explores the opportunities and implications arising from the future transport system in the UK up to 2040. It brought in evidence from across a wide range of expertise in the following areas:

  • The interaction between people, technology and data
  • New transport business models
  • Alternative transport futures

Professor Gunn, whose evidence was published in December, authored a 36-page review on the most important changes in the main modes of transport over the last 100 years.

He said: “The aim is to bring relevant historical knowledge to bear on the future of transport and mobility.

“History suggests that change is as much a matter of recycling the old as introducing the new. The past thus remains an important resource for transport alternatives in the future.”

Professor Gunn’s evidence review highlights how automobility and air travel were the winners of the 20th century – at the cost of walking, passenger shipping, rail freight, buses and trams. The study also highlights how changes in transport have impacted on the economic fortunes of regions and industries and been important contributors to the growth of individual choice, especially for women.

Professor Gunn said: “The car has been seen as a contributor to women’s emancipation. At the same time, inequalities have been mirrored in and reinforced by lack of mobility, measured by the proportion of households in ‘transport poverty’, cut off from employment and services. Among those most affected have been the young, older people and people living in rural areas.”

The evidence review adds: “Changes in transport have had a series of unintended consequences. These include traffic accidents and congestion, but the most fundamental have been the consequences for the environment from air pollution and climate change, emerging in the last third of the twentieth century. Automobility and roads were the main source of negative externalities, associated also with ‘sprawl’ and ‘blight’.”

The evidence review identifies five issues as relevant to the future of transport in the UK:

  • Interactivity: it is clear that developments in some modes have been closely connected with those in others. Most journeys in the past were multi-modal
  • Mobility revolution: evidence points to a transformation in personal mobility in the later 20th century, driven by consumer demand
  • Overload: one of the results of the surge in the circulation of people and goods has been overloaded transport systems - congested roads, crowded trains and airports
  • Sustainability: since the oil crisis of 1973 the sustainability of transport has been a major issue
  • Alternatives: transport systems have been relatively stable over the last century, qualifying the idea of an imminent breakthrough to a new phase of transport

Professor Gunn concludes: “The history of transport in the UK is a story of surprising reversals and survivals. Planners’ emphasis in the mid-twentieth century on the petroleum car over all other modes now looks like a mistake, because it overrode the many different mobilities which co-existed with automobility. The transport alternatives of the past are thus more than interesting relics. They may well offer clues to our multi-modal future.”