By Martin Matthews

My grandmother was born in the North Canterbury village of Cust in 1894, at a time when horse and cart was the main form of transport. The first two cars appeared in New Zealand in 1898 and initially only wealthy people could afford them. I suspect my grandmother would have been a teenager before she first saw a car. How could she have known then that 30 years later, cars like my 1933 Austin (pictured), would be all over Christchurch?

When my Austin appeared, aviation was in its infancy. People in the 1930s would not have known that 30 years later, airplane travel would connect the world, let alone that people would be walking on the moon.

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I tell these stories to illustrate how hard it is to imagine the future – we don’t know what we don’t know. However, when we look to the future on behalf of people in the past, we see how radically and quickly things change. The future is really only limited by our imagination. I believe the next big shift that technology will enable will be in transport. The next 30 years will bring changes we are only now starting to glimpse.

At present, we think of owning vehicles individually and turning up at bus stops and train stations to catch services that run to fixed destinations. But the future of travel is one much more tailored to individual needs. Just like with our mobile providers, we will be buying a service – autonomous cars or shared vehicles that pick us up and drop us where we want to go. Just like mobile providers, the choice will be around the type and level of service we select.

A number of companies have developed services enabled by smart technology that point the way to the power of ride sharing, while autonomous vehicles are clearly also on the horizon. The effect of all these developments will be to reduce the number of cars on the road. The International Transport Forum estimates a vehicle fleet just 30 percent of the size of our current one is sufficient to meet the current transport needs of mid sized European cities.

This, of course, has important implications for our thinking about infrastructure needs. The world of freight will alter substantially as well. New Zealand will still rely on exporting its goods by ship, but already we know much larger container ships operating from a limited number of ports will dominate the future. This development will have implications for our domestic supply chain. Already we can see heavy vehicle technology emerging that will drive massive fuel efficiency and productivity improvements. These improvements challenge us to think differently about how we might best use our existing corridors, such as the rail network, to shift freight to and from our ports, and around New Zealand.

In this future, the role of Government will alter substantially. At present, we have a system which manages access and use within the transport system. Regulation is designed to allow us to achieve our goals, but in doing so to maximise safety and minimise social and environmental harms.

However, in the future, the system will have ‘complete’ information and will effectively be able to self-regulate. Instead of being a regulator, the role of Government will focus on monitoring the performance and integrity of the service providers.

Although some of the futures I have raised may seem fantastical, I believe they will only be wrong in terms of how far the changes goes. In fact, the future may go far beyond what I have predicted. The challenge for the Ministry is to start a conversation across the wider transport sector, so the decisions we make today will be the ones that usher in the future.

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