Joseph Simpson argues that now could be the moment to rethink how we travel in cities
August 2006 might be the date when angst about climate change turned into positive action. First, Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped into a new, practical electric sports car capable of 135mph. Then Britain jumped into bed with the very same Governor of California to share knowledge on climate change technology. A day later, London Mayor Ken Livingstone stood between Blair and Bill Clinton as the World Mayor’s Climate Change Initiative was announced. Livingstone, who will chair this global network of mayors pooling resources and ideas to tackle environmental problems, quipped that if his planned £25 a day congestion charge for gas guzzlers didn’t spur a market for low-emission vehicles then he didn’t know what would.
Such talk could open the way for those designing cities and vehicles to think afresh – and to think it out loud. Canadian designer Chris Hardwicke is just such an example. Describing his elevated express bike-way concept, Velo-city, he argued recently that “every other way of getting around has a dedicated infrastructure. Bikes are the only ones that get the leftovers”. In many cities cyclists share space with buses, a combination akin to asking mothers pushing prams to get off the pavement and start weaving about with hatchback cars. Why not instead explore a vision where cyclists can travel exclusively with other cyclists and zero emission vehicles, pushed along by a gentle tail-breeze in elevated tubeways, enjoying a bird's-eye view of the city below?
Now that there’s political will – the British Government promising to fast-track climate and transport related planning decisions for instance – can those who will create and shape this future really work together to pull-off such concepts? It’s a dynamite question. Lobby groups who’ve long called for a better, greener future must now think realistically about the challenging ideas being proposed rather than responding in a knee-jerkingly predictable way. Yet when the veneer is pulled off, many pressure groups, for example, are exposed as shockingly parochial in outlook. Toronto’s cycling committee chair dismissed the home-grown Velo-city as “looking like a multi-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars plan, if not billions. If we have limited dollars, we have to be realistic”.
Such behaviour risks blocking ideas before they’ve been properly explored. In London, a toll-charging network of elevated long-distance cycle tubes would take pressure off established and overloaded trains and underground. Dancing along gaps beside railways, flying silently over rooftops, it would involve less land-take than any tram, cost far less than any tube and increase enormously the area from where it is possible to commute by bike into central London. And it would provide a massive safety jump for those keen to cycle but not willing to lose their life in the process.
A toll-charging network of elevated long-distance cycle tubes could take pressure off established and overloaded infrastructure in a city like London. Could conditions be created to make it happen? Photo: Velo-city
Where this becomes really interesting is when we start to open up such an idea beyond a plan to merely accommodate bikes. What if Velo-city could accommodate small electric vehicles, too? Then we’d have an emissions-free expressway capable of transporting not only those physically able and confident enough to jump on a bike, but other demographics or people carrying luggage and so forth, spurring entirely new markets for advanced lightweight vehicles.
Luckily, in Europe and the UK, the mood is now perfect for investigating an idea like Velo-city. Transport planning is at best unclear, and whilst road-user charging might generate revenue it remains to be seen whether it will solve congestion issues. As the cost and delays of building new conventional public transport infrastructure swell, and with the market for bikes proving to be very elastic, who knows what opportunity this provides to get people out of cars and onto something else?
The collision of environmental concerns and congestion is changing other aspects of how we move. While Silicon Valley’s new Arnie-endorsed £50,000 Tesla sports car is right now targeted at wealthy Californians keen to do their bit, canny London commuters are already buying the £7000 G-wiz road car as fast as its Indian manufacturer can make them, aware of its incredibly low running costs.
In fact trendy media companies are facing a power-outlet crisis as staff clamour to find a charging point at the office. Most Londoners can't park within 30ft of their own front door, let alone put the car in a garage each night, pointing to the opportunity to develop an infrastructure of recharging points. With government will, energy money and designers' minds, why not the 21st century equivalent of the petrol station where one paid a privilege for an 80 per cent battery recharge in just 5 minutes? Running alongside, or connected to an idea like Velo-city, these charge stations could be literal terminals, each with its own individual character, a new kind of city hub to supplement the Victorian stations which right now form the structure of our city.
Bangalore-built G-Wiz electric cars are going down a storm in London. Hip areas such as Soho Square are seeing savvy commuters beat up to $50,000 in congestion and parking fees and road tax over a three year period.
So often, new ideas are flawed by a lack of political will and funding. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, both are in place. Still unconvinced? Consider this. Yesterday I attended a meeting in Soho square, central London. Parked around it were six of those electric G-wiz cars. These vehicles are road tax and congestion charge exempt, and can park for free all day in the City of Westminster. If one were to drive into London 4 days a week, 48 weeks in a year, swapping a petrol car for an electric one would save you £23,000 over three years. Food for thought. Perhaps £50,000 electric sports cars and multi-million pound cycle tubes aren’t so crazy as first appears.
Joseph Simpson is a researcher for The Movement Design Bureau, a London-based company working with those reinventing how we move. He is researching the future of the car in the city at the Royal College of Art.