Transport utopianism is stupid, and Elon Musk should shut up

No. Image: Getty.

One of the things that’s most irritating about politics in 2018 – and goodness me, aren’t there a lot of choices – is the utopianism that’s crept into the transport debate. There is an apparently endless supply of people who wouldn’t be seen dead on public transport, or using any other service labelled with the word “public”, if they can possibly help it, yet who have come to the conclusion that they are the people staid and dusty world of transport policy has been waiting for. 

And the message they are keen to send is that the old ways of doing things is over: shiny new technologies are going to disrupt the transport sector, just as they disrupted the music industry or retail. Why bother investing in mass-transit, when autonomous vehicles (AV) and ride-hailing apps are about to take over the world? Why waste money on high speed rail, when Elon Musk’s exciting new hyperloop will be along any minute? Silicon Valley types ask these questions, even as they earnestly suggest some kind of fixed route, ride-sharing service based on vehicles larger than the private car, blissfully unaware that they’ve just re-invented the bus. Again.

It’s true that new technologies will have huge, and occasionally unexpected, effects on our transport systems. AV, for example, could reduce the need for parking spaces, freeing up huge amounts of land for other uses, and may eventually make roads safer, too. As sci-fi as it sounds, the hyperloop – pods in vacuum tubes, travelling at up to 760 miles per hour – is, technically, feasible; if it happens, it could radically reduce demand for carbon-spewing short-haul flights.

But these two technologies have something else in common: low capacity. The pods on most of the – still largely theoretical – hyperloop designs can carry only a few dozen people each. And however clever AVs are, they don’t change the rules of geometry. A world in which every journey involves a private car, travelling at a limited speed, means continuing to give over a load of space in our cities to roads. If cars end up taking longer routes to avoid traffic, we might even need more.


There are transport technologies that don’t face these problems – that can carry a lot of people, at decent speeds, while producing relatively little pollution and taking up relatively little space. But they aren’t excitingly sexy and new things like AV or Hyperloop: they’re boring ones, like trains and trams and buses.

New technologies will improve those, too. Smarter and more integrated payment systems will make them easier to use. Big data will help planners spot gaps in the network, that could be usefully or profitably filled. Apps will help users to plan more efficient journeys, and spread them out so they don’t all travel at once.

But the point remains: if you want to move large numbers of people around limited space in the most efficient way possible, you should invest in fixed and predictable high-capacity routes. The solution is the same as it ever was: decently run mass transit networks. There is a reason Silicon Valley keeps re-inventing the bus.

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

This article first appeared in the New Statesman’s sister publication Spotlight.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.