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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.