Charles Leadbeater has given the design of cities—past, present and future—a lot of thought. ‘I don’t know how modern cities can be built around singularity,’ he says. ‘Mobility in cities has to be collaborative. People have diverse needs and require different methods of getting around. You must have mixed solutions for transport including walking, cycling, buses, trams, big trains. Each mode competes for space but there has to be complementarity.’ But what about efficiency? ‘Certainly they need to be systematic, but they need to be empathetic. We cannot allow cities to be driven by data and technology. That is the route into the arms of Google and monotony. Character in a city is far more important than intelligence. Who wants the 8-lane-highway craziness of Dubai?’
“We cannot allow cities to be driven by data and technology. That is the route into the arms of Google and monotony. Character in a city is far more important than intelligence.”
One can see what he means.
Most cities came about through centuries of ‘messy’ organic development. They developed their own idiosyncratic forms created by groups of humans who came together to live in them and proceeded to co-exist—not always in complete harmony. Older cities are rarely designed. There are many Smart City gainsayers, such as Professor Richard Sennett who complains that the concept of smart cities ‘can deaden and stupefy the people who live in its all-efficient embrace.’
The most contentious of Leadbeater’s ‘singularities’ is the driver of the private car. There was agreement among many panel members that both the private car driver and the internal combustion engine were likely to be on the receiving end of plenty of heat in coming years.
One thing that new technology makes a serious possibility is road-pricing. You rent out your patch of the road by the number of square metres you fill and the amount of time you spend on it. In many cities drivers have already been ‘softened up’ by congestion and emission charges and dynamic road pricing is seen by many as a natural step forward from this. It would, however, be a very tough political sell at mayoral or national governmental level, even if the efficiency gains are very clear.
In recent years autonomous or self-driving vehicles (AVs) have been pitched by the automobile industry as the smart way forward. Although billions are being invested in them both by established car manufacturers and upstarts such as Google or maybe even Apple, AVs make many people nervous. The fatal accident suffered by Tesla in California while testing the beta version of their autopilot system did not help matters. It ran into the side of a lorry. There are some whose attitude towards driving remains that it was a really good idea that the first non-horse drawn vehicles had to be preceded by a man walking in front and waving a flag. Tesla has stated that this was the first fatality in 130 million miles of its cars driving themselves, whereas in the US the average for road deaths is one every 94 million miles. (And in the developing world the stats are far worse than that.)
But how will AVs cope with busy cities filled with lots of people crossing roads and not obeying the rules of the road. Would a self-driving car make it more than a metre down Shaftesbury Avenue in the middle of the day?
Certainly David Brown, the CEO of Go Ahead Group has concerns about the AV world: ‘Are they really a good idea for cities? Should we be prioritising individual personal journeys? I’m all in favour of technological advance but not every disruptor is automatically good for cities. Certainly I’d question those which cannibalise the mass transport networks and move people into vehicles that only carry a single person because, as you’d expect, I believe it is of vital importance to keeping cities on the move, and that requires fewer, not more vehicles.’
“Should we be prioritising individual personal journeys in AVs? There must be a better way of doing it.”
In the meantime, while Brown accepts that cities are changing through tech, he maintains the importance of remembering inhabitants’ needs. He doesn’t buy into the fetishisation of data. ‘The most encouraging message is that it’s all about people,’ he says. ‘We have to adapt to all technologies that exist. Collaboration between private and public sectors is vital. There is also the question about the role of freight. So many vans are now delivering internet-purchased and corner-shop goods to individuals… It’s a big negative and a hugely inefficient use of scarce road space. There are better solutions for the greater good. The consolidation of goods delivery would minimise their disruptive effect.’