March 02, 2022

Article at Carlton on Authory

The Future of Cars


Cars are wonderful – when they are few in number. An excess leads to urban paralysis. Electrifying the global fleet will take many years (BloombergNEF estimates that only 8 percent of the 1.4 billion cars worldwide will be battery powered by 2030), and e-cars are not magically slimmer than fossil-fuelled cars so can only add to traffic congestion.

Instead, for mobility, public health, and net zero reasons, many of the world’s leading cities are looking to either remove cars from their streets or severely restrict their movement.

Take Birmingham, for instance. Britain’s “motor city” has been steadily ripping out much of the car-centric infrastructure designed in the 1950s and 1960s by the city’s chief engineer Sir Herbert Manzoni. His progressive- for-the-time “concrete collar” is being chipped away and replaced with people-friendly squares and car-free streets.

Alongside investments in pedestrianisation and public transport, many cities including Birmingham, also incentivise micromobility.

This is roofless, short-distance urban transport encompassing electric scooters, bicycles, gyroscopic mono-wheels, and yet-to-be-invented but no doubt just-around-the-corner hoverboards.

More than 1,000 cities worldwide now have city-owned bike share schemes or, at less financial exposure, allow the use of venture capital funded micromobility fleets such as rental e-scooters. (Private e-scooters are currently illegal to ride in the UK.)

Cities—especially those with elected mayors—understand they must build for resilience in the face of climate change.

Cars are increasingly seen as a menace to the city, with traffic jams no longer considered a marker of economic success.

Four-wheel vehicles have been causing urban congestion for hundreds of years. Describing a busy London road in 1726, Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe said the highway was “exceedingly throng’d” and, in his diaries, Samuel Pepys railed against the carriage snarl-ups of a hundred years earlier. London’s roads have been widened many times since, and new roads added, but still there is paralysis.

When an excess of people move around cities strapped into mobile living rooms, nobody gets anywhere fast. The average motor traffic speed in central London is 7.8 mph, or slower than Pepys’ horse and carriage.

The ancient answer to this “last mile” problem was to walk, most European cities were designed for and by pedestrians, yet for journeys of more than a mile getting around by shanks’ pony is ploddingly slow, and, without a roof, it can be a journey negatively impacted by the weather. (With no central locking, it’s less secure, too.)

A revolutionary form of skinny roofless transport and critically, a speedy one, appeared in 1885. J.K. Starley’s close-to-the-ground Rover Safety bicycle “set the fashion for the world,” boasted a later company advert.

When shod with John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres, a race winner in 1889 and commercially available for transport cycling in 1890, the generic Safety proved to be the perfect pedestrian accelerator.

The world, briefly, went bicycle mad (think Amsterdam on steroids), but another of 1885’s transport introductions supplanted the “peoples’ nag.” In that year, Karl Benz bought tricycle parts from the House of Bicycles, Germany’s biggest bike shop, to create his Patent-Motorwagen, the world’s first motor car.

Forty years later, cities first ripped apart to accommodate trains were ripped apart again to accommodate cars.

From the 1930s, walking, cycling, and public transport were all sidelined, and planners such as Manzoni in Birmingham, Donald Gibson in Coventry, Sir Charles Bressey and Patrick Abercrombie in London, and Robert Moses in New York only had eyes for cars.

We essentially live in the urban world they created, but as can be seen from reshapings taking place in Barcelona, Brussels, and, yes, even parts of London, Coventry, and New York, this isn’t, and can’t be, the future.

Paris has already turned densely packed motor roads into people-only boulevards and is actively disincentivising motoring by removing parking places.

The so-called 15-minute city of the future, where every need is nearby, won’t be designed for driverless electric cars but for buses, trams, shoe leather (if we’re still eating cows), bicycles and e-scooters.

This isn’t a new prediction. “I would stake my reputation, my money, and my time on the fact that ten years from now, this will be the way many people in many places get around,” stated the robotics innovator Dean Kamen in 2001. He was describing a compact transportation device that cost $100 million to develop and which was to be, he said, “to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”

At the time, Apple’s Steve Jobs gushed: “If enough people see this machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it; it’ll just happen.”

The machine? The Segway. There are still some dotting around, but the Segway did not  reshape cities, mainly because most jurisdictions restricted where they could be ridden.

Restrict a transportation mode’s amenity and use fades. Likewise, increase the convenience of that transport mode and usage grows.

The recent introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs)—where streets are fully open for cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, e-scooter riders, and wheelchair users, but partially closed to motorists proved initially controversial in many places, but once residents got used to them, they began to see, feel, smell and hear the benefits.

People on adjacent streets have already started to clamour for LTNs of their own. Before long, communities and then whole cities will have removed all but essential car use, eventually freeing up streets for more slimline, lightweight modes of transport such as cycling and the current and future forms of micromobility.