Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Getting around via the Magnificent 7

Our present method of getting from A to B is based largely on  door-to-door transport by private automobile.

It is not surprising that most people use their own automobile, sitting in comfort, listening to music or talk, or just conversing with a passenger, rather than venture onto public transport. Just jump in, turn the ignition and you’re off.

However, either through war or resource depletion, this will not always be sustainable as the main way of getting people around a country. Not only is it fuel inefficient it is also resource hungry: manufacturing of millions of automobiles each year uses huge amounts of water, metals, plastics, glass and energy.

So how might personal transport be tackled in future?  It may be just a matter of marrying together two technologies: transport technology and information technology.

Transport technology. In going from A to B you have to adopt one or more of 7 modes of transport:  train, aircraft, metro, tram, bus, taxi or automobile. Let’s call them the Magnificent 7.  Each part of the journey (e.g. from door to station by taxi or from station X to station Y by train) has to be separately negotiated, planned and paid for. This can be troublesome and time consuming.

Information technology. In the last decade there has been a revolution in information technology in much of the world. We are connected up by mobile phones, laptops and PCs via the Internet and various phone networks based on a labyrinth of transmitters, copper wires and optical fibres. Banks, businesses and individuals are all interconnected. The evolution of computer, switching and propagation hardware has gone hand in hand with an ability to write extraordinarily powerful software.

Combining the two. In principle any journey via one or more of the Magnificent 7 (e.g. a trip involving a taxi, a train and a bus) can be modelled by software and optimised for the customer.  The potential traveller is presented with a few journey options, including total duration and cost, to choose from.

The cost per mile to the customer should be lower because of the larger usage of public transport, improved overall efficiency and cross subsidisation. All the forms of transport could be electronically interconnected to each other, to each potential customer and to the banks. GPS could be used to monitor the customer’s position and just one, universal type of swipe card could be used throughout the Magnificent 7.

How might this work out in practice?

Suppose I wanted to travel from my house to a house 200 miles (320 km) away - today, starting in the next hour. I type in my destination on a smart phone and the system comes up with 3 routes costing different amounts and with different journey times.

 Having chosen a journey plan a taxi arrives. I pay using a swipe card. It deposits me at the rail station where I use the same swipe card. A fast train covers the bulk of the journey, is spacious and comfortable, and at the other end the same card is used to pay for a minibus to my final destination. No fumbling with notes and because the driver gets a living wage one is spared the nuisance of tipping (still a common practice in the west).

It might even be possible to integrate one’s own car into such a system to enable sharing with strangers, providing they are willing to take the risk (e.g. of hearing me ranting about my latest blog) at some standard rate per mile.

Overall, the energy consumption per passenger mile should be greatly reduced as the hurtling of a monstrous gas gulper up a motorway (freeway) at high speed with a single stressed-out occupant became an anachronism or even a surreal memory.

 Do we have to wait for an oil crisis? Global warming is enough of a problem to justify emergency action starting yesterday.

Author, 2077 AD