The modern motor car is really only 80 years old, or thereabouts. It was in the inter-war period that we settled on the combustion engine and ponton styling, that have defined cars right up until the current era. Only now are we beginning the shift to electricity as the primary drive source, and only with that technological shift will we likely start to rethink the shape of the vehicle. The new electric drivetrain should allow a much greater level of flexibility in the configuration of the car, and the way electric cars are used — particularly with the advent of fully self-driving vehicles — will mean different requirements.
Technology, alongside need, and style, shapes the car. But the car, and our other transport choices, also shape the city. In fact, they shape our lives. With a car we can travel further for work, or leisure. We can live further from our families and know we can visit them. We can transport heavy goods ourselves, shopping weekly instead of daily, purchasing our own flatpacks. Or we can have things delivered to our doors. All of these things change the very shape of our cities, even before you consider the direct requirements of the vehicles themselves.
There has been much talk about how self-driving and electric cars might reshape our cities, removing the need for parking, for example — at least in prime areas. They can drop off their passengers and then drive themselves to an out of town garage, or return home, or continue to serve other passengers across the city until they need charging. But there is also a very reasonable challenge that asks whether we should let cars shape our cities again. After all, the last time we allowed a single form of personal transport to shape our cities, it wasn’t all positive. Self-driving, electric cars propose to reduce congestion and pollution, but we already have other ways to do those things.
Railways and other mass transit systems should remain more efficient than even the most efficient powered personal vehicles, as long as investment in new technology can be sustained. These vehicles should get lighter, with the introduction of new materials. They should benefit from the auto industry’s investment in electric propulsion. Together these things should make them quieter, cheaper to run, and more reliable.
Cycling is becoming more and more accessible to all with the advent of electric assistance. I don’t think we’re far off adding some form of dynamic stabilisation technology to reduce the fears of those concerned about falling off. The risk can only really be reduced with more segregated cycle lanes, but this seems to be coming, slowly, to the UK, with a greater focus from programmes like that in Manchester, led by Chris Boardman.
Cycling is not only clean and quiet but tackles poor health, one of the great financial challenges of our time. The same is true of the walking implied in mass transit. The risk of self-driving cars is that they become like the floating loungers of Wall-E, carrying obese humans between meals.
A city shaped by cycling, walking and mass transit is potentially very different to one shaped by smart cars. Even the smartest of cars will present barriers to pedestrians, breaking down streets into two sides. Mass transit implies hubs around which services and people congregate. In a car-driven system the city can be much more evenly distributed: each has advantages and disadvantages. We seem to have a great fear of cyclists and pedestrians colliding in the UK, with heavy prosecutions under ancient laws for ‘wanton and furious driving’. But it is simply not an issue in other European countries where cyclists and pedestrians sharing the pavement is the norm. Because the behaviour is embedded, people know to pay attention and cyclists know the expectations on them to behave responsibly.
Without intervention, self-driving, electric cars will be the technology that defines the reshaping of our cities over the next thirty or forty years. We may decide that this is the route we want to follow. But it isn’t the only route, nor even perhaps the best one for the greatest number of people. The right mass transit strategy could have a dramatic impact on access to work, the affordability of homes, and the general quality of life for a larger proportion of the population. But such a strategy would require greater public investment at a time when capital is unlikely to be forthcoming.