Truly smart transport should not leave anyone behind

Vital transport links must not be lost to the whims of technology.

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One of the immutable rules of modern politics is that any government worth its salt will promote at least one (but often many more) high-profile infrastructure project. These are almost invariably multi-billion pound projects which aim to upgrade connectivity to or within our major cities, creating much publicity in the process: think HS2 and Crossrail. But sometimes the real stars are the quietest.

And so it is with the community transport sector. But the lack of “big ticket billing” should not be seen as a measure of the importance of community transport. Communities up and down the country rely on these services, particularly in rural areas such as my West Oxfordshire constituency. Community transport offers our most vulnerable residents a lifeline: a connection to the shops, a visit to friends or an appointment with their GP. As the government rightly shines a spotlight on the issue of loneliness, we should shine a spotlight upon the vital role community transport plays in combating isolation.

As I see in my all-party parliamentary group, despite the lack of celebratory headlines, new and innovative community transport operations are emerging all over the country, offering a high-quality, caring service to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. This is evidenced by the fact that community transport operators do not wish for the government to hold their hand. They are after all, by their very nature, innovative and community-led solutions.

This is perhaps why I feel such an affinity with the sector. Community transport perfectly encapsulates the British spirit: communities coming together and, through harnessing their collective hard work and good will, providing a bespoke solution which improves the welfare and wellbeing of every resident.

We are, at present, undergoing a transport revolution in this country. With each passing day more and more of us are making journeys without fixed routes or timetables, in vehicles we do not own and often with strangers.

In an age when convenience is king, transport is now being built around peoples’ lives rather than the reverse. Journeys are increasingly being planned, booked and paid for on an app in the palm of one’s hand. The battle being fought by new transport companies is to create the most personalised journey possible, with passengers in control of every element.

Community transport providers are understandably watching this transformation with a feeling of unease, fearing that this growing reliance on technology will ultimately foster more isolation if the demographic they seek to serve – for whom the world of smartphone apps may not be natural – is left behind.

The community transport sector is innovative by its nature and by no means resistant to change, but it does want to know where it fits in with a modern transport network and how (or indeed if) it ought to respond to the changes happening around it. Whilst the growth of high-tech transport presents a challenge to community transport, I am confident that the opportunities outweigh the challenges and that the sector will – as it always does – thrive in the years ahead.

There is certainly room for community transport to do more than just fill the gaps created by commercial transport companies, and act to add greater convenience to their services. Rather than being necessarily viewed as a threat, door-to-door and dial-a-ride services should be seen as an example to learn from. The model of companies such as ArrivaClick, in which passengers need only register their desired pick-up and drop-off locations, offers a glimpse at what a community transport service might look like in the future.

Not all community transport operators will be able to operate such systems, but the aim to increase flexibility ought to be shared by all, because it is precisely that flexibility – to go where passengers want, when they want, that lies at the heart of community transport’s success.

There is also potential in placing the technological impetus on the transport provider, rather than the passenger to increase customer convenience. Passengers could register their pick-up and drop-off location over the phone, for example, and leave the techy elements to the provider.

Key to sharing the benefits of modernisation to all forms of transport is ensuring that community transport services are fully integrated within the network. The growth of multi-modal journey planner initiatives such as Mobility as a Service, which give passengers greater knowledge and control over their journeys, illustrates that we need to ensure that community transport forms part of an integrated transport network. This would open community transport services up to a new set of passengers who might have never considered it, making the entire sector sustainable and broadening horizons.

As the government looks at the use of technology in transport policy, it is vital that community transport is fully incorporated into future strategies. New systems need to support the role community transport plays in supporting the most vulnerable passengers: those with a visual impairment, dementia or arthritis, who require bespoke care and attention. If the needs of the most disadvantaged (and, in turn, community transport) are central to new transport systems, then we will ensure that no-one is forgotten and we can create a transport system that caters for everyone’s needs.

The growth of high-tech, modern transport systems is to be welcomed. For most of us, the use of technology allows us to access more convenient and flexible transport. But we must not forget those for whom this technological transformation presents a challenge. For them, modernisation must continue to compliment the vital community transport lifelines on which they rely.

If we harness the new technologies of the future, we can create a joined-up transport system that ensures no-one is left behind.