May newsletter – one thing is certain: driverless cars are not the answer

Apologies for slight lateness, but I have just delivered the manuscript of my latest book, Cathedrals of Steam, the story of London’s terminus stations. It is quite a tale given that London has twice the number of terminus stations than any other city, a round dozen the names of which you can try to work out to help you get to sleep tonight.
It is, of course, the result of that English Disease, the obsession with competition. There is a great degree of exceptionalism about the way the railways were developed in this country with the nearest model being the United States (see my book The Great American Revolution of which I have spare copies at a tenner!). The difference, though, was that at least the Americans belatedly went for union stations, while in London, they just built a few stations side by side. My book is due out in November, in time for the Xmas rush.
I will be spending the next month bringing my little driverless cars polemic up to date. The first edition has sold well but not as extensively as I had hoped. In the new edition, I will set out what has happened in the past couple of years which has pretty much been as predicted: the obstacles to autonomy have proved rather higher than expected, and yet the hype goes on. The book will have some nice examples of the failure of the predictions made by the tech and car companies. If you want my thoughts on driverless cars – in French – I did a video for a consultancy which you can find here.
Meanwhile, there is the small matter of the pandemic out there. Its impact on the transport system is a complete game changer, so far reaching that it is impossible to predict without making major assumptions about the spread of the disease, the reaction of government and of people, and the search for a vaccine. I have written about it here but the story is still unfolding so fast that even Mystic Wolmar would struggle to suggest what might happen next.
In the past week we have seen Transport for London bailed out, the Prime Minister telling people not to use public transport while advising them to get back to work, and temporary cycle paths being created in several towns and cities across Britain, with more to come thanks to an immediate £250m package from government. That seems to be part of the £2bn promised for cycling and walking which, in fact, had already been announced but there is no doubt that there is serious intent behind the government’s emphasis on cycling.
While I fear for the future of public transport, given that it is simply incompatible with social distancing, both for practical and economic reasons, there is a real chance that this may mean a completely different future for cycling than would have happened without this ghastly pandemic. If there is one thing that Boris Johnson cares about, it is, oddly, cycling. The only good thing he did as mayor during his eight year tenure was to introduce the cycle lanes which have transformed cycling in parts of the city. His new interest in obesity, stimulated perhaps by the realisation that it was the fact he was overweight that made him so ill with the virus, will ensure that the cycling and walking will lead to real change on the streets. It will be how the inevitable backlash, both national and local, is dealt with that will be crucial to ensure that we become just a bit more like Holland and a bit less like the US.
Have a good weekend, and, as is now fashionable, keep safe.

Scroll to Top