Do smart cities inevitably mean transport disruption?

Driverless cars. The future? Image: Getty.

A plethora of new and personalised ways of getting around cities are emerging – electric bikes, motorised scooters, electric vehicles, car sharing and re-interpretations of the taxi by Uber. How might we realise the potential of these transport disruptions? How does the combination of culture, regulation and technology shape sustainable transport futures?

The extent to which technologies align with social, political and policy norms is a critical factor in their uptake and success.

Technology is politically, socially and culturally mediated. Its success relies on how it relates to existing lifestyles and aspirations. Technologies need to be accommodated in the ways we want to move around cities. The most amazing technological intervention will quickly atrophy if it is disconnected from daily needs and desires.

Regulatory settings can impede or foster new technologies. We can make space for different ways of moving around – such as cycleways, footpaths and roads. We can prohibit or encourage disruptive forces, as so starkly evident with Uber. We can set tax and other pricing mechanisms, as incentives or disincentives for modes of transport.

Some argue that new technologies are so disruptive because they have no predecessor to show us the way. But examples are emerging that show us where society, regulation and technology have or have not aligned, underpinning their success or failure.

Car sharing – an obedient disruption

Car sharing in Australia’s inner cities has been phenomenally successful. There are an estimated 50,000 car sharers across the country.

The disruptions of car sharing are mild: it draws on technologies and skills shared with other aspects of social life. The concept of sharing is disruptive but easily accommodated; regulation adapted quickly to the subtle shifts required. It is an obedient disruption, and this obedience is one of the pillars of its success.

Car sharing is technologically disruptive as it relies on smart technologies to function. It is booked online, unlocked by a smart card, automatically paid by credit card and invisibly monitored via GPS.

It is socially disruptive, too. Car sharing relies on people deferring or giving up car ownership. Importantly, it asks us to give up the emotional and cultural attachments we have to cars. Evidence is mounting that millennials are swapping out the car for the phone as a status symbol.

Car sharing does not significantly challenge regulatory frameworks or political interests. It does rely on parking space, though, and local governments have quickly developed car-sharing policies to balance the needs of sustainable transport with access to on-street and off-street parking. While providing dedicated parking space to car-share organisations has been politically controversial, the regulatory supports were easily identified and mobilised.

Car sharing is a case where the lifestyles, values, technologies and regulation are aligned – a sustainability success story.

Personal mobility devices – a disruption in limbo

While humiliating to use, PMDs may be the future. Image: Getty.

Personal mobility devices, known as PMDs, are more disruptive and a less successful sustainable transport option thus far in Australia. These are personal, battery-powered or motorised modes of transport designed for an individual to use on footpaths or shared paths. They include Segway, YikeBike or two-wheel motorised “Razor” scooters.

These devices allow the rider to travel short distances quickly without physical effort. Their small size makes them easily transferable between transport. This means they can bridge the “first and last mile” – between home and transit and work.

Despite their popularity, which is visible on city streets, PMDs are unable to be legally ridden on roads, footpaths, shared paths or cycleways in most Australian states. They do not meet vehicle standards and cannot be registered or legally used on roads.

Most of these devices are too dissimilar from bicycles, even electric bikes, to be classed as bicycles. Motorisation and wheels also rule out their classification as a pedestrian.

With the exception of some devices for tourism, PMDs remain in limbo in most Australian states. There was a move in Queensland in 2013 when a policy framework to regulate the use of PMDs was implemented. These regulations specified what a PMD is and how/where it can be used.

PMDs were defined as pedestrians to be used in pedestrian environments. Strict rules applied. Riders must:

  • not exceed 12 kilometres per hour;

  • be 12 years or over; and

  • wear a helmet.

In short, regulatory settings were modified to allow these new forms of technology, though not without debate.

How might these means of moving about the city be accommodated or become part of ordinary transport? For these devices to be used as transport, they need to get people travelling faster than walking without compromising safety.

Driverless cars – are we ready?

The stuff of science fiction 50 years ago, some technological optimists today predict driverless cars will be in our cities within five years. Indeed, autonomous cars are already here. New cars have adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, collision avoidance and parking assist.

Robotic vehicles are increasingly common in agriculture and mining. With researchers turning their attention to the realities of life with driverless cars, regulation and social impact are once again emerging as key issues.

A recent assessment by the National Transport Commission of Australia found that 716 provisions from two conventions, 32 acts and 21 regulations need to be addressed before autonomous vehicles become commonplace. Fundamentally, legal and insurance frameworks need to rethink a driver, and who is responsible when there is no driver.

There are also considerable privacy implications of tracking and the ubiquitous sensing and data collection that these vehicles require. While the technology is almost there, our policy frameworks are not quite there.

Research also shows that people are not quite ready for autonomous cars. Car makers are working in more sophisticated ways to ensure that autonomous cars talk to passengers, telling them when they are and are not in control and what is around them.

Businesses, on the other hand, are increasingly ready for autonomous cars, especially through shared transport. In the US, General Motors has invested significantly in ride-sharing business Lyft. General Motors expects autonomous cars to be operating within ten years.

Uber is conducting its own trials of autonomous vehicles. Increasingly, it appears that economic and social conditions are more likely to support driverless buses, at least short term.

Evidence is mounting that our cities, citizens, businesses and policymakers are getting ready for a future where transport technologies that are neither car nor public transport are commonplace. Mismatches remain between technology, social life and regulation – but their alignments, especially around shared transport, are proving successful.

This article is based on an address by the author at the launch of the Festival of Urbanism at the University of Sydney, where Robyn Dowling is professor and associate dean of research.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.