‘Rideables’ could be the future of urban mobility – if only they were legal

Electric bikes at a factory in France. Image: Getty.

If you live in a big city, the chances are that you share Transport for London’s dream of quiet, clean, and open streets.

Cars are noisy, polluting, congesting and, for the most part, simply unnecessary. They’re a leading cause of air pollution in the capital, contributing to 9,500 premature deaths in 2015 alone and, embarrassingly, have made Marylebone Road Europe’s worst nitrogen dioxide hotspot

The Congestion Charge (£11.50 per day), T-charge (£10 per day), and incoming Ultra Low Emission Zone (£12.50 per day) have succeeded in turning London’s roads into the domain of white vans and the super-rich; but congestion has remained stagnant since 2013.

The supposed trade-off for the rest of us is London’s network of Cycle Superhighways, on which Boris Johnson spent £79m a year and Sadiq Khan will spend a whopping £154m per year during his term. He aims to get us making 1.5m journeys by bicycle everyday. But given that the percentage of Londoners who commuted by bike only increased by 1.35 per cent between 2001 and 2011 despite over £1bn pounds of investment, the mayor is a long way from getting Londoners peddling.

Brave the cycle lanes around Blackfriars Bridge on a weekday morning and you’ll find yourself overrun by a grunting, sweaty peloton of middle-aged men in lycra (MAMILs) – hardly an attractive proposition to the families and casual cyclists for whom the superhighways were developed in imitation of the cycling cultures of Denmark and The Netherlands.

This massive investment in London’s cycling infrastructure is underpinned by TfL’s contention that 6.5m journeys are potentially cyclable everyday. But to my mind, this claim is clearly flawed.

That’s because, for the majority of Londoners, the health benefits, savings on the cost of public transport (both financial and to our sanity), and convenience of travelling from door-to-door are mitigated by the fact that cycling to work often leaves you sweaty and dishevelled. It might be an advantageous look for Boris Johnson, but it certainly isn’t for most of us.

There is hope, though, for those who want to escape the hell of commuting by Underground, but who’d rather not peel off sweaty lycra on arrival at work: personal electric vehicles. The prospect of a clean, quick, and comfortable commute from door-to-door, without the requirement for parking space or a work-place shower, isn’t a distant dream, but a contemporary reality.

“Rideables”, as they are known, are not intended to supersede bicycles, but to democratise access to the cycle lanes that we are all, ultimately, paying for. They come in many forms, from electrified versions of traditional systems – the Emicro push scooter and Evolve skateboard, for example – to less conventional personal transportation solutions like the URB-E.

All three will hit 15mph, charge fully from a household plug in about an hour, take you over 10 miles on a single charge, and are small enough to be carried on public transport or stored under a desk. Many will also hold your shopping, your children, or your deliveries.


The problem? They are illegal on all British roads, cycle lanes, and pavements.

London’s population rose by 13 per cent between 2001 and 2011 and is projected to reach 10.5m by 2041. The pressure that 2m additional commuters will put on London’s already strained transport infrastructure could be eased by getting more people into cycle lanes, however they choose to use them. Giving people access to their streets by removing legal red-tape would help delay the staggering £1bn cost of new underground stations, not to mention increasing the catchment areas of existing stations.

Rideables are not a panacea for democratising metropolitan transport – but then, there is no single solution. At about £1,000 each, none of the vehicles proposed above are accessible, like bicycles. Part of the reason for their high cost is the law’s stranglehold on a potentially enormous market. Faced with the daily possibility of the confiscation of their expensive new commuting vehicle, few but the very rich will invest in a rideable as a daily tool; that restricts the size of the market, and so disincentivises the investment and economies of scale that would lower the price of rideables for all.

Since the legal status of electric bicycles was clarified in 2015, prices have fallen within reach of the average commuter; rideables would no doubt experience similar price reductions while competing with electric bicycles, lowering prices across the board.

Brompton, the ubiquitous small-wheeled folding bicycle company, has been manufacturing in London since their inventor identified the enfranchising potential of a personal transport solution compatible with public transport. The company has since grown 1,500 per cent, created 115 jobs, and been awarded the Queen’s Medal for Enterprise.

Brompton were the future once; it’s now time to allow rideables to compete – starting with legalisation.

Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.