Technologists say that we are on the brink of a “new age” of mobility, which could be as transformative as the advent of the private motorcar. This new age, rather than being the product of one single innovation in transport technology, like the combustion engine was in its time, would be brought about by a combination of three technological changes: connectivity, electrification, and autonomy.
There is a lot of hype around “connected autonomous electric vehicles”, and a lot of optimism around when they might come to market. Yet so much about them is still uncertain. We do not know when they might be available, whether they could cope in a city environment, and if they did, whether they would improve the city’s mobility, health and quality of life.
At the same time as these technologically-driven transformations, there is a resurgence of interest in promoting public transport use, walking and cycling – forms of mobility that have lower carbon and air quality impacts than private car use, make better use of urban space, and enable healthier lifestyles and more social cities. New Urban Mobility seeks to integrate technological advances with this renewed focus on those transport modes that use the city’s space and energy sparingly.
This chapter summarises recent technological developments, and the concepts underpinning New Urban Mobility, and argues that the latter should underpin the planning of London’s new neighbourhoods.
Digital connectivity is making our travel more efficient in several ways. Vehicles are communicating with both each other and with the city’s infrastructure, optimising route planning (for example indicating where cycles are available for hire or when the next bus is coming), or improving traffic management (for example, through real-time changes in traffic light timings). London can expect the rollout of these connected objects to continue.
Our own greater digital connectivity is also shifting our travel behaviour towards sharing a vehicle, rather than owning it. Mobile phones and apps are making
23 sharing vehicles a more convenient and reliable option, unlocking new business models of ride hailing, cycle or car hire. The change on London’s roads is already
remarkable: the number of licensed private hire vehicles operating in London has increased by nearly 80 per cent since 2008, and there are 10,000 bikes for hire from Transport for London alone.
Digital connectivity goes as deep as changing our willingness to travel: the possibilities of on-line shopping have resulted in a reduction in personal trips and a surge in goods deliveries. The smart phone is also changing the experience of navigating spaces on foot, and augmented reality navigation may alter not just our routes, but our destinations, for example as online maps help people find routes and places that are not immediately obvious to all.
As batteries become lighter and more efficient, electric propulsion could be transformative for light vehicles, greatly increasing the range and speed of scooters and bicycles, compared to their human-powered equivalents (though safety concerns mean that electric scooters are not currently permitted on TfL roads and pavements).
Progress in battery technologies is also rapidly enhancing the performance of electric propulsion for heavier vehicles, enabling greater range,a shorter charging time and large energy savings. So far “range anxiety” has been an issue, though less so in cities, but increasing battery capacity and charging availability should help tackle this.
At present, electric vehicles are still more expensive than traditional cars powered by internal combustion engines, and although this premium can be made up over a number of years through cheaper operating costs, the upfront outlay still represents a barrier to electric vehicles taking off. 8 However, the point at which electric vehicles will become cost-competitive is rapidly approaching, and should change the market for cars substantially. 9
Technology enabling vehicles to self-drive to destinations in controlled environments is available and progressing fast. Improvements in sensors, machine learning, mapping, and connectivity are allowing vehicles to take on more of their drivers’ responsibilities, and navigate messier urban environments.
Whilst technology companies predict that drivers will become superfluous (full automation in the table below), some transport experts and urbanists question whether this will be safe, or possible in urban environments where narrow streets and sharing with pedestrians, cyclists and non-autonomous vehicles is the norm. 10
The contradictions of future mobility technologies
Combined, electrification, automation and greater connectivity could drastically reduce the cost of both personal and goods transport. In a scenario where full autonomy is achievable, connected autonomous vehicles would not require a driver or parking space, could operate 24/7, and could potentially benefit from
lower energy costs. 11 In theory, this could yield very large efficiency gains – in the form of time savings or improved accessibility, and environmental benefits, from reduced tailpipe emissions and energy savings.
However, when transport costs fall, demand often rises. A new rush to private transport for people and goods would increase congestion on roads and air pollution from sources such as brake dust and tyres – thus cancelling some or most of the benefits of autonomous vehicles. Figures 1a-1c summarise some of the likely impacts of these technological changes in mobility, and shows that they can be diametrically opposed. Predicting outcomes would depend on many assumptions – around availability, adoption and policy environment.On top of this, a technology’s availability does not mean it will catch on: whether people trust self-driving technology and are able or willing to pay a premium for it is key. In turn, adoption of new transport technologies depends on investment in the systems that support them. Rolling out connected electric vehicles requires
installing adequate charging and data infrastructure, as well as considerable investment in energy production: the National Grid estimates that under scenarios of widespread electric vehicle adoption, peak energy demand in 2050 would be 30 per cent higher than today. 12
Introducing New Urban Mobility
While there is relative consensus on what technologies could change travel, there is much less agreement on the timing of their adoption, or how widespread use would play out in cities.
Concurrently with technological advance, there has been a significant shift in how policy experts think about mobility within towns and cities. This approach – which we and others call “New Urban Mobility” – arises from a number of sources, including the work of the UK’s Urban Task Force. It is partly a response to the mounting climate crisis and the contribution of road transport to carbon emissions and air pollution – as well as the socially alienating effects of late 20th-century car-based urban planning, which produced city sprawl and leached life from town centres. It also addresses public health concerns such as the growing levels of obesity that arise partly from inactive lifestyles.
New Urban Mobility seeks to harness new technology that will enable cities to grow while minimising the need for car-based transport and maximising the potential of walking, cycling and public transport use. It seeks to design cities and neighbourhoods to accommodate the needs of people over cars, to encourage neighbourliness and interaction, and to enhance local and global environmental responsibility.
New Urban Mobility also meets urgent challenges facing London in the 21st Century, through being:
- Less energy intensive. London is dense, and therefore favours public transport and shared mobility systems: trains and buses, ride hailing and
bike sharing are all much cheaper to operate in urban environments, where many people need to travel along similar routes. Density also allows for shorter travel distances, and more local service provision, which make walking or cycling trips possible.
- Less space hungry. Density also creates constraints: space is valuable, and cities are always short of it. Most of the city’s public realm is taken up by roadways, which could be allocated to alternative uses, from walking and play spaces.
It is within this framework that we should be analysing the potential benefits and costs of new mobility technologies, and how we should be designing for them. This implies that developers and local authorities should not just seek to maximise flexibility in new developments so that they can serve any kind of future mobility, but instead focus on the outcomes they want to see – namely shorter, more reliable and less carbon-intensive journeys, as well as less air pollution.
New Urban Mobility, centred around walking, cycling, public transport, and light electric vehicles, should therefore be at the heart of planning new neighbourhoods. For heavier vehicles, electric vehicles offer greater energy efficiency and lower emissions than petrol or diesel, and – where individual transport is needed – shared and rented, rather than individually owned, vehicles will be preferable. The relative energy efficiency of private vehicles is highlighted in Figure 2.
In a planning system that links density with transport, facilitating New Urban Mobility could also yield fresh development opportunities. Replacing some of the larger private vehicles on London’s streets with smaller vehicles such as bikes would not only curb congestion and pollution, it could also increase road capacity, as smaller vehicles offer greater throughput. By increasing connectivity, New Urban Mobility could also increase development potential in areas previously held back by constrained transport capacity, and free streets and building sites from domination by parked cars, thereby releasing land for new buildings or public realm.
The next chapter looks back at recent developments in London, to assess whether they are friendly to New Urban Mobility.