The Edinburgh International Science Festival took place earlier this month and included several events relating to environmental sustainability. I have been lucky enough to attend several of theses including The Arup Lecture 2014: Spontaneous Mobility led by Professor John Miles of the University of Cambridge/Arup, about the future of transport in our increasingly crowded cities. I found the lecture highly stimulating and the professor discussed some very interesting statistics on this important topic. Admittedly, Prof. John Miles presumably has a vested interest in selling ARUP’s product ideas to the general public and I currently remain unconvinced of the overall benefits of the electric pod cars which he was suggesting as a possible answer to our cities’ transport problems… But more on that later.
Here is a summary of just a few of the issues touched upon:
- Trains and buses produce more carbon emissions per mile than cars. However, if a public transport vehicle contained its full capacity of passengers it would produce far lower carbon emissions per passenger per mile than a car.
- At the moment, public transport vehicles do not typically contain their full capacity. Thus a typical bus or train is inclined to produce more carbon emissions per passenger per mile than a full car would. But…
- Cars are well under passenger capacity too. Public transport is running anyway so we may as well use it. Switching to public transport would mean fewer vehicles in use, thereby lowering congestion, noise, and carbon emissions.
- Parked cars in the street intensify congestion and building car parks takes away space that could otherwise be used for something more beneficial… (Hands up if you remember Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi“!)
- We could further reduce carbon emissions by using electric vehicles rather than petrol or diesel-run transport. Unfortunately, electric vehicles still have a relatively high initial cost.
So why are people so reluctant to use public transport?
- Doesn’t pick you up and drop you off wherever and whenever you like.
- Lacks privacy.
- Can be crowded at peak times with limited space for luggage, shopping, buggies and wheelchairs.
- People with limited mobility can find public transport impractical.
- It can sometimes be more cost-effective for a group of people to take a car than to use public transport.
- Mapping a car journey can be less complicated than figuring out which bus(es) to get and where from and where to and at what time…
- Cars are sometimes used as status symbols. Perhaps a cultural change of attitude is needed.
- Buses stop frequently which can try the patience of passengers who just want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. On the other hand…
- If we all got public transport instead of driving, the clearer roads would increase their efficiency. Might we thus arrive at our destinations quicker?
It seems to me that we need more incentives to switch to public transport – it needs to become cheaper, more efficient and better organized. Perhaps there is also an argument for introducing more car-free zones? Maybe one day, cars will be phased out altogether in cities.
Spontaneous Mobility: Robot Pod Cars:
Prof. John Miles concluded his talk by discussing the two-seater driverless electric pod car as a potential solution to some of the problems created by other forms of transport. (See a short video here.) He suggested that in city centres, we could have these pod cars on standby, ready to pick people up at the touch of a button using smartphone apps. Unlike conventional five-seater cars which carry unnecessary extra weight when there’s only one person in them, pod cars would generally be at least half full when in use. He suggested that they would drive at around 12mph in pedestrianised areas, potentially also being used on roads in the future. Just tell the pod where you want to go and it will find the best route based on current traffic conditions so you can just sit back and relax or carry on working if you prefer.
I am still unsure of the suggested benefits of this for several reasons:
- We don’t typically use cars in pedestrianised areas anyway… Surely the production and maintenance of pod cars in these areas would only create transport pollution that wasn’t there before…
- They are impractical for people with more than one child or baggage.
- You’re going to have to get some exercise sooner or later. (“WALL-E” anyone?) Maybe they’ll install an exercise bike inside each pod so you can carry on exercising while you are chauffeured…
- Pod cars would need strict policing to prevent damage to these costly machines, especially on Friday and Saturday nights
- Driverless transport could spell future job loss for bus and taxi drivers.
- Only available to people with smartphones, and let’s not forget the all too real human and ecological costs involved in the extraction and production of the minerals used in mobile phones… (I wonder about the costs involved in producing robot cars…)
Driverless pod cars are scheduled to trial in Milton Keynes in 2015. While I have serious reservations about the benefits of these pod cars, I am hopeful that they will act as a catalyst for further improvements in the way we travel.
With a bit of luck, we might see less of these…
and more of these!
In the meantime, here are a few green tips we can introduce to our daily travelling lives straight away:
- Why drive when you can walk? Use it or lose it!
- Too far or in a hurry? Dust the cobwebs off your bike and get those wheels in motion!
- If you’re not confident about cycling, get a timetable or look online to find your most convenient public transport options instead.
- If, for whatever reason, you find that none of the above methods are practical for your journey, arrange a lift-share and fill up all those empty seats!
Souces and Further information:
- Blog about the problems with underused public transport
- Revealing 2009 bar chart on car occupancy in Scotland
- 2009 Scottish Travel Survey Findings
- National Travel Survey: 2012 detailed UK results
- Pod car video
- Further Milton Keynes pod car info
- Government press release on cars of the future