From self-driving cars to Zoomtube: What would transport look like in Judge Dredd’s Mega City One?

Mega City One. Judge Dredd® is a registered trademark. Copyright © 2017 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Images used with permission of the copyright holder.

It’s the year 2102AD. Something has been found underneath Sector 301 of Mega City One. Judge Dredd is on his way to the scene. He’s thundering in from above on his heavy-duty Lawmaster motorbike. Visible below are shiny Zoomtubes, weaving their way through the monolithic habitation blocks and unbroken urban blight. They pulsate with computer-controlled convoys of fast-moving automated vehicles, speeding along inside a vacuum.

As many as 800m people live in Mega City One. It’s crowded. Convulsing. Choking. Breaking under its own weight. The civilian population is mostly illiterate, since artificial intelligence removed the need for most types of work. But they are restless, always on the move and often in trouble. This is why street judges like Dredd exist. To dispatch instant justice, to restore order by force – they are judge, jury and frequently executioner: they are the law.

Mega City One has a secret. It is built on top of abandoned and ruined “under cities”, from before the nuclear war of 2070AD. Dredd is descending into this dark undercroft now. Spotlights have been set up around a crime scene, but this is not what attracts Dredd’s attention. No. His eyes are drawn to an old Brutalist building from 1970AD. A set of rusty steel roller-shutter doors have been ripped from their moorings. Inside, there appears to be a brand new, petrol-burning vehicle. These were mass-produced in the 20th century, but now they are incredibly rare and expensive antiques.

Why it is here is unclear. It sits inside a laboratory of some kind, connected to ancient silicon-based computers. A transport professor from the City Central De-Education Establishment is already sitting inside the vehicle, looking around in bemused wonderment. “They were trying to steal this” she says. “It’s a completely intact driving simulator laboratory from the 21st century”.

Dredd pauses for a moment. “What is driving?” he asks.

The professor chuckles. “About 100 years ago, people would sit here and turn this large wheel with their hands to send the vehicle left or right. At the same time, they’d press these pedals here with their feet, to start and stop”. Brushing some cobwebs away from the top of the instrument panel, the professor goes on: “Sounds dangerous doesn’t it. And in some ways it was. It’s astonishing how something so primitive could be used by so many people.”

Old school: a driving simulator laboratory from the 21st century. Image: Guy Walker/Heriot Watt University/author provided.

She reaches into the passenger seat and picks up a thick, dusty folder containing hundreds of sheets of paper. “People used to think driving was a simple activity, but these documents prove otherwise. Look, here: it’s a task analysis – an antiquated method of research based on hundreds of hours of observations, looking at how people used to control these things. Did you know, people had to perform more than 3,000 individual tasks, at the correct time, in the correct sequence, in order to avoid crashing? Amazing. In fact, people had quite a lot of trouble adapting to automatic vehicles.”

Dredd regards her incredulously. “I know!” she says, smiling, as she shifts herself out of the driver’s seat and walks to the other side of the laboratory. Dredd follows, intrigued. Part of the roof has collapsed and water is leaking in, dripping on piles of old paper books and broken coffee mugs with the crest of a once famous university printed on them. The professor crouches down and peels away a thin sheaf of water-damaged paper from the pile.

“This will take years to go through, but look at all these: these old scientific papers offer a fascinating insight into how people in the 21st century were thinking about vehicle automation. They categorised it into six levels, from zero automation –- a bit like that petrol-burning vehicle over there, where the driver does everything – right through to full automation, like we have now.”

“What’s interesting are the levels in between. For years, their Artificial Intelligence systems weren’t sophisticated enough for full automation in all conditions. So the vehicle controlled some of the functions, such as automatic cruising on the highway – their equivalent of a Meg-Way. But the human driver had to do the rest. And judging by all these other ancient texts lying here, it seems that caused no end of trouble.”

“Really?” Dredd replies, with growing curiosity. “I mean, it just seems obvious that AI is a much more efficient way to pilot our vehicles – especially when a computer controls the whole traffic system. Why would that ever be a problem?”

“You’ll like this then,” the professor says, as she bends down to pick up another text. “They called it the study of ‘human factors’. Look: this describes some of the experiments performed in this laboratory a century ago. It says that when a crude safety technology called ‘anti-lock brakes’ was introduced in 1985AD, people in experiments drove faster and braked harder, because the new technology made them feel safer.”

Ancient history: the laboratory’s control room. Image: Guy Walker/Heriot Watt University/author provided.

“And this one here. This is an early study into night-vision from 2000AD. Far from making things safer, the tests showed that it actually made drivers speed up, even in thick fog. And this one here, look, it shows that as cars got more technically advanced, their drivers became more isolated from the road and began to lose touch with what was happening around them. It seems as if old-fashioned drivers actually needed some of that technological primitiveness to remain 'situationally aware’. So up to a certain point, having things to do actually helped them to drive better.”

This was beginning to make sense now: AI hadn’t replaced human drivers overnight. It had taken years, decades, for automated transport systems such as the Zoomtube, Robochairs, and Mo-pads to be developed and refined. This slowness to adapt was why you could so often hear Mega City One’s chief transport engineer bemoaning the fact the city would be an engineer’s paradise, were it not for the humans. Dredd bent down to pick up a red book from out of the puddle at his feet.

“Ah yes, Human Factors in Automotive Engineering, I’ve been searching for a copy of that text for a while,” the professor says. “In the back they try to imagine what driving would be like today in the 22nd century. It’s rather quaint.” Turning to face him, the professor looks Dredd straight in the eye: “Still, I wonder what the inhabitants of this ancient city would have thought of Mega City One?”

“They would have learnt a lot from our advanced technology,” Dredd replies, with confidence.

Mega City One: paradise for who? Judge Dredd® is a registered trademark. Copyright © 2017 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Images used with permission of the copyright holder.

Turning away a little wistfully, the professor says to herself, quietly: “I’m not so sure. Mega City One is like a giant machine. The technology rules. It is a logical extension of the ways we humans used to think about cities and transport, back when this building was constructed.” She waves her hand vaguely at the decaying concrete structure they’re standing in.

“But maybe we could have taken a different direction. A more human-centred direction. Instead of building a city which is optimised for computers, to make things more efficient, we could have used this powerful technology to meet human needs. Like the need for identity, freedom and participation. Heck, people used to enjoy driving some of these old relics...”

The ConversationIn the end, the professor has the last word: “Don’t you see, the harder we drive the technology, the more we seek to make things logical and machine-like, the more we get all sorts of unexpected problems, which we humans still need to fix. That’s the problem with all these dystopian comic book cities of the future.”

Guy Walker is associate professor in human factors at Heriot-Watt University.

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.