Page last updated at 03:04 GMT, Friday, 27 January 2006

Mapping out the future of transport

Perpetual motion scenario PIC: Narinder Sagoo/Foster and Partners
Perpetual motion: Will Britain look like this in 50 years time?

By Tom Symonds
BBC News transport correspondent

You leave home, step into your car, turn the seat around and start working your way through your e-mail inbox, as the car drives you to work.

Or you use whatever comes to be your mobile phone to summon one of a swarm of automatic buses.

Don't fancy stepping out into the rain? Then perhaps Telepresencing is how you'll win friends and influence people. It's the three-dimensional visual conference call of the future.

These are all visions of Britain in 2055 from the heavyweight government Foresight report into how we'll travel in the next five decades.

Futurology often goes too far. There aren't many of the mono-rails or flying cars predicted 50 years ago. But this report claims not to be a prediction of the future, but a set of alternative futures.

The one we end up with depends on what we do right now.


One scenario has been given the name "Perpetual Motion". It assumes personal transport continues to be the norm, but everything future technology has to offer is used to make getting around easier.

Good intentions scenario PIC: Narinder Sagoo/Foster and Partners
Good intentions: When green issues are the top priority

You don't have to steer, obviously. But your car will also talk to others to find out where all the traffic is and avoid it. Communications are mobile, instantaneous, and constant, 24/7. Building facades become huge screens, as Britain becomes the set of Bladerunner.

The transport minister Stephen Ladyman told me this was his preferred vision of the future. But then he's an ex-scientist turned politician.

Another possible future is "Tribal Trading". This one's another Hollywood film awaiting a screenplay. In about seven years we start running out of fuel, and in the mid-20s the banking system collapses.

Chilling stuff

Britain becomes a series of rural enclaves creating their own power, and competing for resources. The report contains the fictional story of businesswoman "Jill" who has to pull strings to get a pass for a cross-country car trip.

Tribal trading scenario PIC: Narinder Sagoo/Foster and Partners
Tribal trading: Will the UK return to a more localised society?

Its intriguing and chilling stuff.

Like all futurologists, the experts predict technology will spread like a rash.

Tiny sensors will be built into everything, sending information to computers which use "data-mining" techniques to handle tasks like clearing traffic jams to shifting post. Personal computer "agents" will keep everyone up to date about train times - say goodbye to National Rail Inquiries.

The trouble with technology is that it moves at its own speed.

Guerilla technology

Why is it, the report asks, that a plane can land at an airport every minute, but trains can't arrive at stations with the same regularity?

Urban colonies scenario PIC: Narinder Sagoo/Foster and Partners
Urban colonies: Will 2055 look like this?

The answer is that Britain's railways are still 19th century technology, but aviation is 20th.

There is no reason to suspect that by 2055 all modes of transport will have caught up with each other.

The report also raises the interesting idea of guerrilla technology in transport.

Mere people may want computers to do something differently to the way they were programmed - enabling us to send our micro-chip controlled car empty to pick up the supermarket shopping. Or get itself washed perhaps.

Of course all the big concerns of 2005 are built into the predictions.

Huge challenge

One scenario has citizens buying carbon credits for travel because the right to produce greenhouse gases is rationed.

In the same future, cars become tiny and sleek, designed for minimum fuel consumption.

In the end this report is a huge challenge to the government to think big about the long-term future of transport.

This is something most governments have been unable to do.

Funding for roads and railways often leaches, as if by force of nature, into budgets for hospitals and schools.

At least now the government knows what to expect.

Though it must be hoping that by 2055 the "wrong kind of leaves" jokes have finally been forgotten.

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