Planning for future transport demand

How much transport we need and want significantly influences the future transport system. But forecasting future transport demand is difficult.

It’s a question of how we and our goods will travel in 2050 and which option can, should and possibly must everyone and everything take.

Estimating transport demand, and the consumer behaviours and expectations that you and I will put on the transport system, is a complex and continually evolving challenge. It is, however, one that matters. With national statistics suggesting UK’s population will reach 72 million by 2041, transport’s ability to meet the needs of society will continue to be challenged.

Changes in policy, demographics and lifestyle

The make-up of those 72 million people will have also changed, again influencing how the UK’s transport demand needs will evolve:

  • over 65s will account for 26.2% of the projected population
  • 16 to 64 year olds 59.2% in 2039, down from 63.8% in 1999.

Throw in the geographic distribution of people, working patterns and lifestyle changes, policy and financial instruments and all the demographic factors, makes planning for future demand a task befitting regular forecast updates. That is, not a rigid point in time roadmap.

That said, Innovate UK recently published version one its Transport Vision 2050 document. It conveyed a multimodal transport demand outlook to 2050, taking account of multiple published forecasts and variables, such as:

  • COVID-19
  • the advent of autonomy.

This is to identify how we will move over the next 30 years. First holistically appreciating and then representing a demand picture for the wider transport sector presented some stark often contradictory narrative.

It’s simple to illustrate; demand is estimated to grow and across most modes:

  • civil aviation approximately 60% growth by 2050 on 1999 levels
  • maritime freight 41% growth on 2020 levels,
  • total road traffic to growth between 17% and 51% by 2050.

It certainly raises a contradiction of how, when it comes to meeting our emissions targets, more will result in less. The 6th carbon budget reinforces how moving demand away from the most polluting of modes is vital in limiting transport’s environmental impact.

As such we should not simply look towards cutting demand in isolation from the positive impact that modal shift, technology innovation and more connected and efficient movements can bring.

But, the 6th carbon budget also requires behaviour change to reduce travel demand to hit the carbon budget, including reducing:

  • use of cars and vans
  • demand management for aviation.

Credit: UK Research and Innovation

This aligns with the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenario, which models greater use of public and shared transport to reduce the number of vehicles. But it conflicts with the forecasts from industry and Department for Transport (DfT), so further work is needed.

Are we (and our things) to travel less, or can innovation bridge this gap? This is important as it impacts investments needed now, so we need to align our views and expectations.

It requires a system level alignment and change from policy to technology to, crucially, behaviour change. A not so simple task!

The freight escape

Looking at an over-simplified freight demand picture and how goods will move by 2050, paints an evolving scenario the closer those goods get to their final destination. Moving volume and bulk internationally will see possibly only limited change in terms of percentage split:

  • maritime accounted for 95% of goods imported in 2020, which is not likely to change
  • planes will continue to move high value small quantity goods
  • international rail and road freight will see a marginal change in terms in good inwards to the UK.

Once on shore though, modal shifts are likely to be driven by point in time decisions which draw on more acute factors:

  • economic
  • technological
  • consumer
  • environmental.

Short sea shipping could see modal shift away from rail and road freight while advances in road freight autonomy and digital connectivity are likely to improve their economic viability. The recent Great British Railways policy report committed to a freight growth target which is in parallel to improvements to the rail network, including access and greater flexibility. As such rail freight will certainly compete and compliment other modes.

Credit: UK Research and Innovation

The last few miles are where innovation in the skies and on land will change the way goods are delivered. Advanced air mobility (AMM) is on the horizon for harder to service areas and will be a reality by 2030.

In urban environments, use of cargo bikes and other human powered assisted vehicles will grow.

Both AAM and micro-mobility will have a bearing on the demand for light commercial vehicles (LCVs). However, their practicality in satisfying consumer habits will see autonomous battery electric LCVs acting as a key ‘to end customer’ vehicle.

We don’t always know where we are going but we’re on our way

With all the changes coming to transport, it’s tricky enough to convey a holistic approach to managing demand. Putting it into practice will take:

  • monumental collaboration
  • proactive thinking
  • the flexibility to change the approach.

To help us all achieve our aims, we need alignment in our vision of the future. We need to align the more planes, trains, vessels and vehicles projected by many, with requirements for net zero to reduce their use in everyday situations.

Managing down our demand for transport is going to be hard to achieve, and may not be what individual users want. So, we must look towards technology and innovation to limit its impact; it’s the low hanging fruit.

Policy and other fiscal instruments will help. However, creating the conditions for taking the least environmentally impactful mode, and making that attractive morally and financially to transport users, should be a prerequisite for decision makers. Greater certainty will help industry make better informed decisions, delivering products and services that meet individual customer and wider society requirements.

Contribute to the discussion: how much will we travel?

Greater understanding and alignment of transport demand and use is needed to ensure we collectively reach our goals of a transport system that delivers for society and the economy. We need more discussion and debate to inform a consensus view.

We want your input to inform our understanding as well as others. Our demand outlook will evolve as the transport system, technology and society progresses. This means, we as Innovate UK, are always investing into an informed future position.

Further information

Connect with David on LinkedIn

Follow Innovate UK on Twitter

Connect with Innovate UK on LinkedIn

Follow Innovate UK on Facebook

Follow Innovate UK on Instagram

You can go to the Innovate UK website

You can go to the Innovate UK EDGE website

View our blog archive on GOV.UK

Visit Innovate UK’s YouTube channel

Sign up for Innovate UK’s newsletter

Top image:  Credit: UK Research and Innovation

This is the integrated website of the seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK.
Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help us test new developments.