There are several major global challenges facing transport. If transport is key to economic prosperity then it is essential to accommodate demand for transport within the capacity of the infrastructure. In this context the challenge is to ensure relative ease of movement through improvements to the efficiency of operation of the transport system or by expanding its capacity. The transport system and its use lead to adverse environmental and social impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, damage to the natural environment, noise and poor air quality, social exclusion and intrusion into the built environments of our communities. There is therefore a challenge to look to technological advances and fiscal and regulatory measures to address adverse impacts of the transport system and its use. Investment in new infrastructure is expensive for example an estimate for the UK indicates an average cost for a km of new motorway at around £18 million or $29 million. As the infrastructure is expanded and as it ages, the cost of maintaining that infrastructure (and the services using it) also increases. In austere financial times there is a significant challenge for governments being able to fund the transport system.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is for decision makers responsible for transport systems to come to terms with the relationship between transport and society. A transport system’s development is not merely a response to societal need. Changing the transport system changes society – in terms of land use development, locational decisions, social and business practices and the behaviours of individuals and organisations. The challenge for transport is to contribute to supporting and improving society rather than only serving it and risking unintended, unanticipated and unwelcome consequences. This is far from easy when addressing a complex system involving multiple actors and when faced with short-term political and shareholder imperatives.

There is a need to understand why, in a number of countries with developed transport systems, the long run trend of growth in car use has come to a (temporary) halt (with population growth offsetting decline in average car travel per person) For example in New Zealand the amount of vehicle kilometres travelled per person (regardless of vehicle type) in 2013 was four percent lower than in 2003.There are several possible contributory factors beyond economic conditions including trends in urbanisation, the reduced propensity of young people to learn to drive and the increasing role of virtual mobility in society.

There is considerable uncertainty about the future of what has been a car-centric transport system and wider society. Professional opinion is divided. A case can be made for this ‘automobilty regime’ enduring and evolving with efforts principally targeted at reducing its adverse effects. Meanwhile, a case exists that society is undergoing a regime transition – driven by a number of factors including the digital age. This holds that economic and social connectivity is increasingly being realised by proximity (brought about by urbanisation) and virtual mobility (brought about by rapidly growing consumption of information and communications technologies (ICTs)); and that the car is moving to become a background functional technology in society.

In the face of demographic, technological, environmental, social and economic change, there are two questions that reflect critical uncertainties for the future (especially in the longer term):

  • What will society want to do in terms of how it configures and connects?;
  • What will society be able to (afford to) do in terms of how it configures and connects?