Tag: Urban Transportation

The future of transportation is already here, but everybody is missing it

Maybe it was the news that Tesla is now the largest U.S. carmaker by market cap, or maybe it has been the uncertainty around the price of oil, but there has been a flurry of futurism lately centred around looming changes to our transportation systems, specifically around autonomous electric cars.

Autonomous, electric vehicles are about to take over our lives, say prognosticators of the future, a change that has some dragging out Y2K-level hyperbole. Many of these predictions are being built on the idea of cities filled with blissfully shared roving robot-vehicles safely and orderly awaiting our smartphone hails.

Only recently, however, have those futurists started to put some thought into the impact of autonomous vehicles on our streets. A few consensuses have emerged – that driverless cars will reduce collisions, for example – but there is surprising diversity in opinion on the long-term impact on our cities.

There are plenty of Pollyanna predictions that streets will become safer, less congested places because of autonomous vehicles. But there are just as many hypothesizing that our streets are about to become a whole lot worse, particularly considering the recent troubles of the company that was once seen as the future of the city: Uber (if you missed the big New York magazine story, here’s the short version: Beyond the company being allegedly riddled with assholes, Uber has made congestion worse, not better, is still heavily subsidizing nearly every ride by as much as 60 per cent, making it barely profitable in big cities and horrifically unprofitable in small ones, thereby bringing into question the very idea that ride-sharing is the future).

No matter which side you come down on, however, one obvious thing seems to have escaped the notice of most of these predictions, even though it should be clear to anybody with a working set of eyes.

If you were to teleport to today a citizen of a decade ago into a city of today, and asked them to identify the differences in transportation, I’m willing to bet they would not mention technology, or autonomous vehicles, or smartphone apps, or even car sharing. It would be bikes.

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This New Yorker said as much. The most profound change to the streets of many cities over the past decade is the prevalence of people on bikes as a practical form of transportation.

So why is this so rarely mentioned in discussions about the future of transportation? Of all the nascent transportation disruptions we’re in the midst of, question marks still litter many of them. But use of the bicycle is a proven improvement, and seems destined to keep up its breakneck growth, especially as a generation grows up with new appreciation for its practicality. Urban cycling is the most profound change to city transportation in generations, yet the allure of technology is overshadowing it.

It’s a strange omission. Yes, autonomous vehicles represent a sea change in the way we think about transportation, but swapping one type of vehicle for another doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of congestion. Nor is there any track record behind many new vanity ideas (sorry, Mr. Musk) such as boring tunnels beneath cities to facilitate even more cars. Progress is moving more people more efficiently, and there are precious few ways to do so. None of them involve adding more cars.

Bike paths fall

This isn’t a zero-sum game. There are certainly ways that autonomous vehicles can help improve the efficiency of our transportation system, but not if such thinking is done is isolation.

If you want a look at how an efficient city of the future moves people around, forget robot cars, or tunnels, or 1950’s-style car-centric road systems simply updated with new vehicles. Instead, look at Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Seville or New York or Montreal or Vancouver and the masses of people riding bikes because it’s faster, easier, healthier, more effecient, and more enjoyable than being trapped in a box, no matter how high-tech that box might be.

If it ain’t broke: Why is everyone trying to fix cycling with gimmicks?

There’s something about the simplicity of the bicycle that seems to make everybody want to improve it.

Kickstarter is filled with bike ideas, from bizarre bike lights to bizarre bike carriers to bizarre bike blankets (yes, that’s a thing). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — most industries would kill for this spirit of innovation. But something about bikes also seems to breed ideas that contravene the old adage of innovation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Case in point: This so-cute-that-it-crosses-over-into-ridiculous bike that looks like a car. Called the PodRide by its inventor, a Swedish dude named Mikael Kjellman who has already raised tens of thousands of dollars on Indiegogo, this contraption is basically a recumbent bicycle covered with fabric.

 

Mikael Kjellman and his PodCar.

Kjellman, by all accounts a clever and well-meaning guy, says he invented the PodRide to help beat the Swedish winters (there’s a heater inside) and to take advantage of “the environmental benefits these vehicles could have if they were made more popular.” The invention has been making the Facebook rounds these days, mostly, I would argue, because the thing is so damn adorable.

But as a practical idea? The world has already figured out how to keep riding year round: By building safe bike infrastructure, maintaining it for the winter, and dressing for the weather (in fact, somebody, ahem, wrote a book about winter cycling). It’s not rocket science

In fact, I’d argue the PodCar may actually set back the cause Kjellman is purporting to further. Not only does this thing perpetuate the notion that riding in winter is something abnormal that requires special gear, it also creates the impression that bicycles would be a more practical transportation option if they were just a little bit more like cars.

In the big scheme of things, I hardly think the PodCar is a major threat. But there are other ideas out there that perpetuate the idea that cycling is in need of some kind of tech or design fix that really could set  back the cause of urban cycling around the world.

Cycling seems to lend itself to giant hare-brained architectural ideas (particularly in London), like the SkyCycle, the floating bike lane dubbed the Thames Deckway, and the bike routes running through abandoned subway tunnels. All of which sure look futuristic in the renderings, but seem to sidestep the reality that cycling isn’t just about transportation —  putting bikes on a street makes cities better for everybody because it brings a more human scale to the streets.

Even smaller projects, like this lusted-over airbag helmet or these concept bicycle designs that seem to draw eyeballs at all the bike bike-industry trade shows may seem well and good, but they aren’t exactly furthering the cause of getting more people in cities on bikes.

And despite my soft spot for Elon Musk, and his heartening talk about the urban transportation problem, his recent hint that he’s working on some kind of autonomous bus seems to be a solution for a problem that has already been fixed. If it is, as the speculation goes, some of kind of vehicle to transport people to and from transit stops, also known as the first mile/last mile problem, well, such a vehicle has already been invented. It’s called a bicycle.

Here’s the thing: We already know what works. Bikes haven’t changed much in 100 years because they work. Separated and safe bike lanes work. Want an innovation that will really disrupt the bicycle industry? Invent something to break through civic politics and bureaucracy preventing more bike lanes from being built.

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I’m not saying we shouldn’t innovate. E-bikes, cargo bikes and carbon builds have all shown massive improvements in recent years. But let’s not get distracted on frivolities.

Or at least put your innovative brain power into stuff like this or this. At least the ride will be enjoyable.

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