thoughts on our urban future

Future Urban Transportation

When looking at things like peak oil and greenhouse gas emission reductions, the transportation industry has a lot to answer for.  In the EU for example, transportation accounts for around 1/4 of emissions and road transportation accounts for more than 2/3 of that. One of the current trends in transportation thinking is that in the near future, all personal transportation vehicles (or, as we tend to call them, cars) will need to be moved from fossil fuel to electric fuel sources.

But moving cars to electric creates any additional number of problems.  In part because the technology for the cars themselves is not entirely there- meaning that they may need to be recharged more frequently, and also because the change in infrastructure that will be required will also mean significant investment and adaptation through the development of charging stations and street charging capacity.  Interestingly, or perhaps sadly, what we don’t see talked about very much is what other alternatives may be available that provides the same convenience of the car.

I recently spoke briefly with someone from ULTra about the personal rapid transit (PRT) system they are promoting and developing.  The system consists of small, lightweight, computer-driven electric vehicles running on slender, special-purpose guide-ways.  One of the study projects will open this summer at Heathrow Airport and will link Terminal 5 to two remote stations in the business car parking lot.

It’s great to see these systems being promoted and tested.  But I believe we need bigger thinkers to really start to push this through in a bigger way and as a much bigger test case.  Imagine if you will, a city where there are no personal cars.  Instead, all streets are adapted for these PRT vehicles.  Instead of worrying about how you charge your personal car, the PRT vehicles could charge themselves at designated city charging points.  Instead of getting up and in to your own car every morning, you schedule a PRT for where and when you want to get picked up, and the vehicle is there, waiting for you.  You get in, it takes you where you want to go, and then it goes off to work for someone else.  Obviously there would be some sort of subscription fee for this, there should be benefits to sharing rides or using multiple pick ups (I’m thinking of the morning school run here) and there would still need to be capacity for emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks.

Still for most journeys and most people, as long as the capacity was in the system, this would work amazingly well.  And the benefit to an automated system is that it can get you from A to B in a much more efficient way than before.  No more need for traffic lights and easier avoidance of traffic jams.  This could provide a street renaissance for pedestrians if they no longer had to worry about traffic, although would require a complete redesign of how we think of streets- I’m not quite sure how bicycles fit into this yet.

Still, it’s an incredible thing to try and imagine- an entire city, okay, lets start with a small city, with this system in place.  The system would thrive in an urban environment.  As areas became less developed, the infrastructure required might prove to be financially ineffective- but imagine if a developer of a suburban development could offer as an amenity to their residents a connection to the urban PRT system?  Would that benefit provide a relative uplift in real estate appraisal?

Really, taken to it’s logical conclusion what this sort of system would mean would be a complete  upheaval of how we envision transportation and use and ownership of vehicles.  We’ve all seen it before- in many futuristic movies presenting visions of the future.  The thing is, the technology is coming available now.  The company 2getthere is implementing a system at Masdar City.  It will be interesting to see how these project develop and provide knowledge to roll them out in the future.  The real challenge I believe will not be to implement these systems in to new cities and developments but rather who will take the first plunge in retrofitting their city to implement this sort of system?

It may be a long way off.  It may be futuristic.  It may have problems that haven’t been sorted out yet.  But it also may be just the sort of thing we need.

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