Intelligent, driverless buses are the solution to Wales’ public transport woes

A driverless bus in France

Martin Owen

One of the biggest issues plaguing Wales today is the poor state of our transport infrastructure.

Swansea is possibly the worst major city in Wales and England for dependence on a car to get to work, and Cardiff isn’t that far off.

In rural Wales, things are even worse, with owning and using a car pretty much compulsory if you want to get anywhere.

Wales was at the cutting edge of 19th century transport development. The first ever working steam locomotive in the world made its debut near Merthyr Tydfil.

However, all the solutions to our current transport problems suggested by our government and local authorities seem to be looking back to the industrial revolution for transport solutions to 21st century problems.

I have over the past 20 years heard calls for (re)opening of lines to Amlwch, Caernarfon and beyond, and Aberystwyth to Camarthen. Feasibility studies, costing small fortunes, have been commissioned.

But the railways were invented at a time when the roads were inadequate of getting people around. They require massive investment to build, and rural railways provided a slow service and are the first to close due to the costs.

They are also largely useless in rural areas, and even some cities, because they do not provide the means of taking you any further than the station. Being dropped off ten miles from home isn’t particularly helpful.

Buses are the other option. But the dearth of paying passengers you see on the few rural buses that are available suggest that this solution doesn’t meet people’s needs either.

They are slow, visiting every small hamlet before they get you where you need to go. Fine if you have all day.

Bus timetables are also too rigid, set by the transport planner within a constrained budget and unresponsive to the needs of travellers.

Once set it seems to remain forever – unless a service is cut. The flexibility needed to meet the needs of the rural travellers is not there.

I think to myself: “Why, in the twenty-first century, would I be inventing in a 19th century transport solutions in order to meet the transport needs of rural areas?”

Driverless

If we want to allow people to live in Wales without having to own a car, but to be able to get to where they want quickly, the solution is driverless minibuses that can pick up multiple people and respond intelligently to traveller’s needs.

An Uber-like minibus system already works well in rural areas in South America or Africa. Anyone who has visited will be familiar with the Collectivo or the Alugar.

These are independent vehicle owners who directly follow the customer’s need. They have almost infinite flexibility in responding to need.

They have a swarm and hive mindset of control unconstrained by the top-down prescriptive planning of local authority or multinational bus operators.

They are there when the ferry arrives; they are there when the football match finishes; and if you have finished your mountain walk in a village bar, by the time you are refreshed the bartender has often arranged for you to be picked up.

But in a few years, even a driver won’t be required. We are rapidly moving to an era where driverless transport is a reality. The potential for intelligent, shared, near on-demand point to point public transport is there.

Driverless buses are already being rolled out in Japan and the continent.

It exists in pilot projects in England too; the UK TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) are developing in Greenwich with funds from Innovate UK.

However, Wales is woefully underrepresented in such awards, despite being the perfect test bed for such technology.

Current planning and legislation is largely about restriction. Now is the time to think about enabling legislation and policy, about investing in pilot activity, about looking at intermediate and transition strategies.

It is not the time for digging up land to lay down railways nor is it time for re-jigging bus timetables – these are old solutions that would continue to let us down.

It’s time for Wales to roll out the welcome mat for twenty-first-century transport solutions.

It’s going to happen eventually. But we must decide if we’re going to be ahead of the curve, as we were during the first industrial revolution, or playing catch-up.


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