Three new trends that could avert city gridlock

Gridlock in Paris, 2007. Image: Getty.

From London to Delhi, e-hailing companies like Uber and journey-planning apps like CityMapper are fast transforming the way people move around cities.

When you’re rushing to work and your home is miles from a train station, the bus is not due for 30 minutes and the city bike-hire scheme hasn’t reached your part of town yet, you are increasingly likely to reach for your smartphone to find the closest car-club vehicle, or to hail a taxi.

But what if we all did that to travel around our cities? Imagine the congestion and air pollution as people flock to cars.

So how do we fill the gaps in the public transport system without grinding our neighbourhoods to a standstill? How can our kids get to school without also getting asthma? Even if everyone uses electric driverless vehicles, what would that do for the sheer number of cars in our cities? With the greatest urban migration in history expected over the next 20 years, increasing the number of people living in cities from 3.5bn to 5bn, the stakes are high.

We were among those who produced the first global study to track this new wave of innovations in transport technologies, and our conclusions are bold. There are three major opportunities for city governments to use new technologies to take the battle out of your trip across town.

Firstly, trip-planning and ticketing smart-phone apps can make it easier for passengers to use real-time information to plan and pay for their journeys – seamlessly hopping from tube to bus to e-taxi, to car-sharing, cycle-hire or walking. Better information is proving the driving force behind changes in the choices we are making. In Los Angeles for example, the Go-LA app not only offers all the many options for getting from A to B, it lets users compare the time, cost, health benefits (calories burned) and climate emissions involved.

Secondly, fleets of on-demand electric minibuses could replace underused traditional bus routes in less densely populated areas on the edge of cities. Transport authorities are under pressure to meet demand while controlling operating costs. Buses, tubes and trams are often the most efficient and clean mode of urban transport, but only if a lot of the seats are occupied.

Modelling of four Greater London bus routes found that, even with the additional cost of purchasing electric minibuses and routing software, the scheme could make a profit in 4 years and cut climate emissions and nitrogen pollution by up to 99 per cent.

Thirdly, e-hailing can help passengers cover the first and last mile of their trips to and from public transport stations. Evidence from the USA shows use of public transport drops by up to 90 per cent when passengers need to walk more than half a mile to the nearest transport stop. Cities that have subsidised e-hailed shared electric taxis to and from transit hubs have improved residents’ access to public transport, boosted ridership and fare revenues, and reduced the number of lengthy journeys people take using private cars into the centre of cities. Subsidies can be targeted at those most in need.

The research by the Coalition for Urban Transitions argues that better data could enable city governments to use on-demand electric minibuses and e-hailed taxis to fill the gaps in mass transit systems. If managed well, these new technologies can help to channel people towards mass public transport hubs, cycle schemes and walking options. Ultimately, the aim is to move people away from private cars by improving the efficiency and experience of other transport options.

There is one take-home message:  both the public and private sectors need to understand the potential and risks of these rapidly emerging technologies, and plan for them. Banning e-hailing companies or autonomous cars from city streets, as many have done, ultimately won’t fix transport systems. City halls and national governments need to prepare regulation that ensures transport systems, as they evolve, are safe, convenient, fair, affordable and sustainable. And they need to consider whether and how public-private collaborations could deliver better services for urban residents.

If cities can do this, innovations in mobiIty services could help liberate our cities from gridlock and air pollution – rather than compound the problem.

Louise Hutchins is an advisor to the Coalition for Urban Transitions, former special advisor to the Ecuadorian government and led Greenpeace UK’s energy campaigns. Julia Thayne is the Director of Urban Development for the Siemens’ Center for Cities in the Americas and co-author of the report. 


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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