One winter’s day in 1857 a Victorian writer for a popular magazine sat down to imagine what London would be like 100 years on. He got a lot right — predicting Hampstead Heath would be transformed into “a people’s park” and that there would be a fight to clean the air. He guessed that in the city of the future people would wear “neither hats nor bonnets” and that “innumerable electric wires” would make communication easy.
One error stands out. He was sure that London’s streets would flow freely in the shiny tomorrow’s world of far-off 1957: full of electric trams, special lanes for lorries and a separate “convenient and spacious drive” for carriages.
He would have been shocked by the gridlock and danger we put up with instead today.
Let’s play the game now. What will London’s roads be like in 10 or 100 years? It’s a good moment to ask because right now a rich industry is springing up based upon a revolution in travel that those involved in are betting on heavily. Venture capital investors are pouring money into tech start-ups they think have the answer.
© Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Lime electric scooters parked on Cherry Street (Getty Images)The age of the private car in cities, they claim, is almost over. We need to get ready for a new generation.
So if you drive in London, pay attention, because if these futurists are right, the city of today will soon seem as old-fashioned as those black-and-white pictures of a city full of horse and carts.
The transformation is starting now, with a push to get polluting diesel vehicles off our streets.
The Department for Transport is conducting its biggest review in a generation and has said this could lead to electric scooters being allowed on UK roads for the first time. Next month the Ultra Low Emission Zone comes into effect in central London, and from 2021 it’s meant to cover all of the capital inside the North and South Circular Roads.
© Getty Carefree young woman riding an electric scooterYou’ll still be able to drive if your car meets the new standards or you pay a £12.50 daily fee — but it could be just the start of something much more radical.
The next step, set out in the Mayor’s transport strategy, is to make central London a zero-emissions area by 2025 and London a zero-carbon city by 2050 — with none of today’s polluting vehicles. “We’ll only bring it in when vehicle technology is available,” promises Paul Cowperthwaite, who is in charge of road charging at Transport for London. But the race is on to find the things which will make it possible.
Will they be self-driving robot pods, picking us up at the click of a button? Or zippy electric scooters? Will more people cycle with e-bikes? And will there still be cars, even if they are electric ones? Or maybe the move to homeworking means we won’t be moving about as much at all?
The first step will be the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars. In 10 years, predicts Steve Gooding at the RAC Foundation, charging electric cars won’t be the “nightmare” it is in London today. “Almost every lamppost could have a trickle charge capacity,” he says — park and plug in.
© Getty the power supply for Charging of an electric carAfter that he imagines “driverless buses which have conductors” coming to the city of the future, though he’s not alone in wondering if self-driving so-called autonomous cars, now being backed by big tech firms, might struggle to cope with London’s narrow, twisty streets. If cars keep stopping every time a pedestrian walks out in front of them, it might take them “a couple of days to get across Covent Garden”.
“Almost every lamppost in London could have a trickle charge capacity — park and plug in an electric car” -Steve Gooding, RAC Foundation
Part of the problem, says Isabel Dedring, global transport leader at engineers Arup, and previously London’s deputy mayor for transport, is that too much excitement is coming from “zillions of technology ideas” from companies.
They are “seeking to reinvent how we move in cities, promising things that are about to be here like flying cars” — but they should be thinking instead about the problems these gadgets are supposed to solve. You could dream up a way to deliver fruit to people in offices by drone, she says — “but no one is going to want drones everywhere in the air”.
© Getty Young woman is standing near the electric car and holding smartphone. The rental car is charging at the charging station for electric vehicles. Car sharing.So what’s actually going to be useful in the future? According to Azmat Yusuf, the founder of the company launching Citymapper Pass, a joined-up way to allow Londoners to pay for all sorts of transport services from bikes to the Tube and shared taxis in one bill, “we are seeing huge progress on electric transport” but “autonomy is going to be harder to predict, especially in complex cities like London”.
He sees potential in one technology a lot of people are chasing this year, what’s called “micromobility”. Things such as powered scooters, “which seemed toys even two years ago”, are catching on in other cities though in London their use is banned. “If it’s not scooters,” he says, “it might be a different kind of device more suited for London”.
The aim is to solve what transport planners call “the last mile” — which right now is one of the big reasons people decide to drive rather than use public transport. There might be a quick train for most of the journey but if it is a mile and a bit walk to the station at each end, and it’s raining, the car seems easier even if it is slower and polluting.
Find a clever way to get you to the station, though, and suddenly cars aren’t needed. It might be electric taxis offering shared rides, it might be light electric bikes you can pick up at docking stations or it might be scooters — or, of course, something else that might make its inventors rich.
“The aim is to bring in eco solutions for ‘the last mile’, that stretch of journey which feels easier to do by car”
E-scooters, though, do have a problem: “Some do 40mph,” says Dedring. “On sidewalks that’s not a good idea” — and does anyone want to ride on a flimsy board on rough roads mixed up with lorries and buses? That’s one reason London’s transport bosses have held back from allowing them — although plenty are already being used anyway. Other cities aren’t so cautious: Madrid has just given permits to more than a dozen e-scooter hire schemes.
© Getty Ecological and quick. Low angle of exuberant handsome guy riding electric scooter and grinningCities don’t work when anyone can do anything they like — or at least creative chaos has its limits. To raise air quality, clean up streets and make getting around quick, we need rules, even if they are informal ones such as standing on the right on Tube escalators. “Regulators are on the back foot,” says Dedring.
Cities around the world are trying to show they are modern by backing test examples of each cool new thing — “every city needs a driverless car trial or you are a loser” — but the trick isn’t to pick technologies, it’s to set broad plans shaped around the things we might need in the future.
Rules might sort out one tough problem — how to get rid of diesel lorries, which don’t convert easily to electric power, by moving cargo onto electric distribution vans from big hubs outside cities instead.
© Getty Sign For Electric Car Charging Point In Car Park“What would be the three or four things where London can lead?” Dedring asks. Our city was an early adaptor of congestion charging — the system still hasn’t been matched anywhere. So expand that, maybe a smarter system based on when and how far you drive inside the M25.
We are world leaders in public transport payments by contactless card. And we are ahead in measuring and dealing with bad air quality — to the point where London’s air will be better than most cities. When that happens, will political pressure to go further drop away?
According to Axel Bentsen, who founded Urban Sharing — a start-up based in Oslo that aims to provide ways to manage the shared use of new-tech forms of travel — we can’t predict what will work.
But we can make sure we don’t get chaos: as happened a year ago when Chinese bike firms started flooding the streets with neon-coloured hire cycles. The future shouldn’t be a free-for-all but a way of putting the right things in the right places.
Will those things still include cars? In Oslo, they are trying to keep vehicles out of the city centre altogether — replacing parking spots with bike lanes. It might sound a step too far for much bigger, far more congested London.
But here, too, he says, it won’t be long before we look at the days of uncontrolled car use in the way we now see the time when you could smoke on the Tube and in restaurants. “It now seems crazy,” he says. “In 10 years children will ask their parents: ‘You used to park here? really?’ It’s the same as smoking.”