A few months ago I interviewed Klaus Bondam, head of the Danish cycling union and formerly Copenhagen’s mayor for roads and infrastructure, and asked him how he saw his city changing in the coming years. The answer was something of a surprise.
“Look at something like car parking,” Bondam told me. “It’s so old fashioned in my eyes. The private ownership of a car – that will end in the next 10 to 15 years. I think it’s going to be a combination of shared cars, of city cars, of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.”
This sounded like a rapid timeframe, I told him. Bondam was adamant: “I’m totally convinced about that. Why on earth would you make a big investment that you just leave outside 95% of the time and don’t use?”
This was, of course, Copenhagen, which already has very high levels of cycling, and measures to curb private car use. But other people also believe that such a transport revolution could be coming to other urban areas.
The key element of this is the advent of the driverless car. These might seem something for the distant future, but the technology is already affecting people’s lives – car insurance premiums are predicted to plummet in the next few years as crash-avoidance and sensor-triggered braking systems become more widespread.
Leading the way on driverless technology are tech firms, notably Google. One effect of this is that research into driverless cars involves not just how they might work, but how they could be used, a product of the computer engineer’s traditional impatience with inefficient or wasteful systems.
All this inevitably draws engineers towards the idea of car sharing. As Bondam notes, each person, or family, having their own car is absurdly inefficient and leaves everyone, car user or not, having to deal with external factors such as streets cluttered with parked vehicles, and cars crawling along looking for parking.
Sharing systems already exist in many cities, not least bike networks of the type seen in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. App-based taxi services such as Uber are broadly similar, although they create their own problems, not least a large number of vehicles cruising round as they await fares, causing pollution and congestion.
One Google-spinoff company is trying to look further into the future for more radical solutions. Arnand Babu, chief operating officer at Sidewalk Labs, believes cities could be fundamentally reshaped by the mass arrival of shared, driverless cars, something he forecasts to happen sooner than many people think.
The intention of Sidewalk Labs is to reshape cities through the conjunction of clever planning and hi-tech solutions. It is working on LinkNYC, a joint venture between New York City and CityBridge, a consortium involving Sidewalk Labs, to turn defunct payphone booths into digital hubs, and Flow, a more ambitious plan aimed at helping urban areas monitor and manage traffic more effectively.
Babu, formerly head of special projects for Google, concedes it is early days for his company. “When technologists approach cities, the criticism is that they treat it like any other software problem,” he says. “We’re trying to avoid that.”
And while he stresses the risks in trying to predict the future, Babu says there could soon be big and interconnected changes for transport in what he calls the “20-100mph range” – cars and what might replace them – and the “10-20mph range”, covering cycling and other more short-range travel modes.
Driverless cars, Babu says, could have a particular impact in expansive US cities, making often moribund outer suburbs easily accessible and more attractive, in turn relieving the pressure on people to live in the centre. With mass driverless car sharing, he argues, you would need far fewer vehicles overall, leaving neighbourhoods much more attractive for walking or cycling.
Babu believes there is “tremendous latent demand” for people to live in communities based around walking and bikes. As he sees it, the suburb (or inner city) of the future would see people hop on a bike either for local trips or to access to the next, more rapid form of transport, be it a driverless car or public transport.
“You could potentially move to a model where these suburban cities that were so reliant on individual vehicles could become incredibly well-connected metropolitan areas, where you could get anywhere within 30 minutes, plus a first mile/last mile of walking or bike connection,” he says. “You’re in a high-speed, shared vehicle for the majority of miles, but then the last mile or first mile you embrace a wide amount of innovation around all sorts of personal vehicles, whether self-powered or electric powered, to connect.”
The idea of a company such as Google taking an interest in cycling might seem anomalous. But urban cycling, like shared cars, can appeal to tech firms’ focus on efficient and adaptable technology.
Google announced last year a plan to combat road congestion around its headquarters in Mountain View, California by getting together with the local county government to plan and build a network of useable and safe bike lanes.
It followed research into local commuting patterns that found 20% to 30% of trips were under five miles – perfectly achievable on a bike in the agreeable local climate.
This slightly Truman Show-style image of cities filled with benign, never-crashing, always-available shared cars does, however, come with various caveats.
For example, it’s perfectly possible people might eschew Babu’s first or last mile on a bike or e-bike and get driven right to their door, thus keeping traffic on residential roads and doing nothing to improve the globe’s ongoing pandemic of ailments associated with sedentary living.
Also, with cars often criticised for their depersonalising and divisive effect on urban life, this atomisation could increase all the more if they are simply replaced by driverless versions.
Rachel Aldred, a transport expert at the University of Westminster, argues that various visions are feasible. “There’s an alternative and scary future where people become more individualised – they shove each of their children into a driverless car to go to school,” she says. “And people could spend a lot of time in driverless cars. I’m not saying that is going to happen, but there are different trends, potentially, that you might see.”
Aldred continues: “We need to do more thinking about what exactly we want driverless cars used for, and who will use them. The trade-offs are not always recognised.
“On the one hand people say they’ll be much more efficient, which would spare road capacity, which is great if that is the case. But on the other hand it will open up the benefits of car mobility to many more people, who currently have limited access. You can’t have it both ways.”
Which way will it go? What does seem very possible is that the hegemony of the private car, seen for so many decades as immutable and permanent, could end sooner than many people think, maybe even within Bondam’s predicted timeframe.
Fifty years ago, the business behemoths of the day were collaborating with city planners to drive urban motorways through city centres. These are now gradually being removed – as with, for example, Paris’s decision to close the Voie Georges-Pompidou along the Seine for a trial period of six months.
The new industrial giants, such as Google, are looking beyond antiquated issues like free-flowing motor traffic and towards cities in which people enjoy living.
They won’t always get it right. Babu excitedly told me about the potential for low-cost, lightweight carbon-fibre cycle flyovers, which might be technologically nifty but fall into the classic trap of seeing the bike as something to be removed from a city rather than placed at its centre.
But the fact he and other tech innovators are even thinking such things is encouraging. The transport revolution is coming. You’ll just have to wait to see precisely how it looks.