Car ownership is on its way out. Could public transport go the same way?

Look, no hands! Image: Getty.

The car is set to undergo a massive transformation in the coming years, as automation gradually eliminates the need for drivers, and electric and hybrid vehicles occupy a growing share of the global market. But, in a future where autonomous cars arrive on demand to take you where you need to go, there seems little point in owning one.

The average car spends around 90 per cent of its life parked. A shift away from privately owned vehicles towards a service – owned and run by public or private ventures – is a smart and efficient solution that’s going to revolutionise the way traffic flows through cities. But it could also have profound consequences for existing transport systems such as trains, metros and bus services.

Give up your cars

For many, cars represent independence or freedom, so you might expect some resistance to this. But on the whole, evidence suggests that people seem ready to accept the loss of car ownership, provided alternative transport goes fast and far enough.

This is clear in cities like London, where regular, comprehensive public transport options make owning a car unnecessary for many people. On average, there are 0.8 cars per household in Greater London, where the tube connects the city with 402km of rails.

But car ownership is higher in areas where transport is less reliable. For example, residents in the Great Manchester area, in northern England, own on average 1.3 cars per household with an urban rail system extending just 93km. If alternative solutions are competitive, there seems to be little opposition to abandoning car ownership.

The price of anarchy

It’s likely that autonomous cars will operate as part of a networked system. This will enable them to avoid congestion, thus reducing pollution and minimising the time people spend on the road.

This bears explaining: congestion is often caused by too many drivers all trying to take the most direct or convenient route at the same time. Only drivers who take the route early will benefit, while the rest will get caught in traffic – mathematicians call this “the price of anarchy”.

Best avoided. Image: Antonio DiCaterina/Unsplash.

Working as a system, driverless cars will be able to distribute themselves across a range of routes to prevent traffic jams and move through the city more efficiently. This kind of system should offer further benefits over time, provided useful data collected by autonomous cars is delivered to local or city authorities, that can then work to improve roads as needed.

Transport transformation

It’s not just road traffic that will be affected by these new systems. The way people move within and between cities is going to change as well – and this raises major questions about public spending on infrastructure such as railways.

In general, areas have to reach a certain level of density to make public transport economically viable – there have to be enough people using a service to make it worth running. This is easily done in big cities, but harder to achieve in small or mid-sized ones. Autonomous cars could help by giving more people a quick and convenient way of getting to or from a station.

But if people had the choice, they would probably take the same car all the way to their destination. As the capacities of autonomous car networks expand in the future, it raises big questions over the value of planned investments in fixed point-to-point transport such as trains, buses and metros. Even transport between cities could eventually be affected as the range of these networks grow.

This raises the question of whether investments in infrastructure for autonomous cars, which optimises the use of existing road infrastructure, should be considered as an alternative to significant investments in new rail infrastructure that may be rendered redundant by technology before or shortly after it’s completed.


Making a road map

It will probably be ten to 20 years before autonomous vehicles and the high-speed 5G network – which are both needed to properly address the price of anarchy – are rolled out onto public roads. How this shift takes shape will influence the way cities look and feel in the future, too. Autonomous cars have the potential to collapse travel times – and that opens up the opportunity to rethink how cities are planned.

But as the physical assets of cities change much more slowly than the digital technologies that are increasingly embedded within them, this could rapidly draw people away from those cities that do not embrace the opportunity, and towards those that do.

For citizens to benefit from the roll-out of autonomous cars, social issues must be considered in the way such networks are programmed. This means ensuring that mobility is optimised in a way that supports community cohesion – for example, by clustering homes and businesses together, and integrating other functions such as education and well-being – so that dropping the kids off at school or going to see granny becomes easier, not harder.

Autonomous cars are going to change the way people feel about car ownership. But as these new, networked autonomous services become a reality in cities across the globe, it will raise big questions over the continued funding of public transport. Now is the time to think about how cities should be planned to make the most of autonomous cars – without losing what makes them human.

The Conversation

Martin Mayfield, Professor of Engineering Design, University of Sheffield and Giuliano Punzo, Lecturer, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.