Technological leaps in transport have led to countless fantasies – self-driving cars, pods on rails and even mini-helicopters – most of which will never see the light of day.
Even more prosaic innovations such as toll roads or electric vehicles, which many see as vital to achieving smarter methods of urban movement, face a struggle for acceptance.
But it is now clear things will be transformed in the future. Think how, already, the way we travel has been revolutionised by technology: as well as the advantages of the Oyster card, the days of tickets for planes have passed, satellite navigation has become almost universal and cars are as likely to fail because of software mishaps than engine problems.
Smart innovations in transport face numerous hurdles: investment, standardisation of equipment and co-ordination between public and private sectors.
But the rewards for overcoming these challenges are significant: the Oyster card’s introduction has made a huge difference to the way Londoners travel around the city and is already being followed in other cities including Birmingham and Southampton. Its sophisticated technology can be expanded to many other applications and also built into mobile phones.
In Hong Kong the equivalent of the Oyster, launched in 1997, is now used by 95% of the population for everything from buying a cup of coffee to parking fees, and even as a key card for apartments.
The government is aiming for a similar revolution here and has already agreed on the system, called ITSO, with which the Oyster will soon become compatible. Norman Baker, the junior transport minister, wants people to be able to use the same smartcard to take a bus to Euston, a train to Manchester and then a bus at the other end, for example. The problem remains of making sure rail franchises and bus companies fit the costly equipment.
Murray Hennessy, chief executive of thetrainline.com, the biggest online retailer of train tickets, says: “Having a smartcard that would be usable in every city in the country would transform the way people travel.”
Such innovations require collaboration between the public sector and private firms. They must put aside the competitive practices that followed privatisation, which led to bus companies competing on the same routes in some cities, for example. However, some radical new bus schemes have been implemented, such as the user-friendly Fastrack system in Kent (see panel, right).
Introducing road pricing such as London’s congestion charge has proved difficult, and former mayor of London Ken Livingstone only managed it by using low technology and not seeking approval by local referendum.
Although similar plans in Edinburgh and Manchester were overwhelmingly rejected in a public vote, Stockholm succeeded by introducing pricing for a trial period before putting it to the electorate.
Low-tech, pay-as-you-go transport rental schemes – such as bicycle hire, most recently introduced in London in a scheme certain to be duplicated elsewhere in Britain – are also likely to feature in the smart cities of the future. And it is not just bicycles; a rental scheme for electric cars has been well supported in the French city of La Rochelle (see panel, below).
Electric cars are also being trialled in the multi-agency CABLED experiment in the West Midlands, involving several major vehicle manufacturers. This suggests the longstanding reluctance of the industry to adopt a product that challenges their beloved internal combustion engine is waning in the face of pressure – both social and through European legislation – to reduce emissions.
Some European governments are now offering incentives to buy electric vehicles. In the UK, there will be a £5,000 grant towards the cost of the car, but critics say it is not enough since an average saloon is likely to cost more than £30,000 until mass production becomes feasible. Governments in several countries are also installing more charging points.
Martin Ward, a government adviser on electric cars, says, paradoxically, we should not pin all our hopes on them: ”Electric cars are a piece of the jigsaw in reducing CO2, but there is also other technology in petrol and diesel engines that will help governments and manufacturers reduce emissions.”
Hydrogen-powered cars are also being trialled in another experiment at the University of Birmingham, which has one of the country’s handful of hydrogen refuelling pumps.
Some believe the most significant recent development in helping urban navigation is the iPhone – or rather its “apps”, which give real-time transport and congestion information. Soon we will be able to receive sensor-transmitted online information about the availability of car-park spaces, or taxis and bicycles for hire.
But people mostly want to reduce travelling time for economic, social and environmental reasons. The coalition government has responded by encouraging less travel. The benefits, Baker said recently, include reducing congestion, lower carbon emissions and allowing people more time at home: “Twenty-first-century transport choices should fit a 21st-century world where we shouldn’t just use smartcards to travel, we should be smarter about when we travel and when we use office technology for virtual travel instead.” In other words, the smartest developments in travel technology may be those that do away with the need to travel in the first place.
Voitures électriques: The French experiment
The city of La Rochelle on the west coast of France has been home to a decade-long experiment with electric cars.
In a scheme akin to the bikes for hire in London and Paris, residents can sign up to a scheme for just 5.50 euros (£4.80) a month that allows them to hire one of 50 electric cars, which can be found at seven different points across the city, to use as often as they like.
People then pay according to length of time and distance covered, rather like a taxi fare – nine euro cents a minute and 18 euro cents a kilometre.
When the scheme began, I tried out one of the Peugeot 106 cars and found it a pleasure to drive, silent and surprisingly peppy. And feedback from users has been very positive.
The scheme appeals particularly to younger people, mostly male, and the average trip is very short, a mere six kilometres (four miles), suggesting they use it for a shopping trip or a quick visit to friends.
The pioneering scheme is a partnership between the local authorities and various businesses including Peugeot and EDF.
It remains very much a subsidised social venture rather than a fully functioning commercial business – which would see much steeper charges, given the high price of electric cars. But as with all such experimental schemes, if the idea were introduced on a bigger scale, costs could drop dramatically.