People gravitate towards big cities. After all, living near your high paying office job, surrounded by economic and social opportunities, easily beats grafting on some isolated farm for pennies. And as the agricultural industry becomes more automated and we shift towards service-based economies, more people make the decision to move to a city. 55% of all the people in the world live in cities, and it is expected to increase to 68% by 2050, mostly caused by developing economies in Africa and Asia. Over the coming years, cities will keep growing with new mega-cities sprouting up all over the world.
But mega-cities come with their own problems. If you ask anyone living in a city such as London, one issue that almost certainly comes up is poor transport. Having a great job in the city is all good, but it usually means commuting for at least an hour on horrendously overcrowded transport. The infrastructure put into place as an urban area grows is put under enormous strain as more and more people become reliant on it. A city can only run efficiently is people and goods can easily flow through it. Gridlocked cities endure colossal economic loses due to the amount of time wasted by workers sitting in traffic. For example, the traffic issues in Cairo costs Egypt 50 billion Egyptian pounds or 4% of the country’s GDP. Standstill traffic issues also affect people socially. Drivers start ignoring traffic rules, causing accidents and pedestrian casualties. It’s also worth noting that high densities of cars and lorries wreck air quality. A recent study showed that people living in large cities had billions of toxic particles embedded in their hearts.
So what could be the solution? How do we get more people flowing through our cities? What incredible technology could we come up with to save us all?
We don’t have to look very far for a solution. Cycling can be the answer to our commuting issues. Historically, cycling has been seen as a past time for a few lycra-clad enthusiasts who can afford to spend heaps of cash on new bicycles to ride around with their equally affluent friends. However, cities started rolling out new cycling rental schemes such as the Santander bikes in London. The idea was pretty simple: you rent a bicycle from a dock and ride it to where you need, dropping it off at another dock to finish your journey. These bikes are a quick way to get around for roughly the price you would pay for transport within a city anyway. You don’t have to fight for space on a crowded train or bus and can take any route you want to the destination, whether it is a quiet back road or the busy high street. The real benefit though is that you don’t need to own a bicycle. A lot of people, such as myself, are turning away from owning cars. They come at an incredible expense to then be stationary for 99% of their lifetime. If a viable alternative is present that is cheaper and less damaging to the environment, we will use it and abuse it. However, docked bicycle systems are not the dream alternative. A car can take you directly from point A to B. On the other hand, you must first find a docked bicycle, and then pray that there are docking spaces at the end of your ride. And then it’s possible that the latter is not even remotely near to where you want to be. It just doesn’t work.
The answer to this issue might be floating transport.
What the heck is floating transport? Essentially it is the same idea as I mentioned before, but without the need for docks. The bicycles (or scooters) are located in random places in the city, most likely where the previous person left it, although often the bikes get picked up and relocated. You jump on the nearest bicycle available and drop it off wherever you want. These are ideal for short journeys that you would otherwise make by bus or train, and cost close to what you would pay for public transport anyway. Having tried an electric Lime bike myself, I can say that the experience was very smooth. Access is controlled entirely via an app that shows you where all available bikes are and where you can drop them off. Naturally, if you dump the bike miles from the city, there will be an extra charge for having the company have to go to pick it up.
Like any other tech, floating transport has experienced some growing pains. The system is very open to abuse. Although the bicycles are made to be very heavy and unappealing to thieves, they are often stolen. How could you not resist taking a bike that’s just been left out on the street? The initiatives have also struggled to get off the ground in China. Streets were swarmed with millions of bicycles, barely any of which were used. Thousands of bikes were dumped in bike graveyards and at the bottom of rivers, and many companies were forced to either pull out of the cities or go bankrupt. In Europe, there has been a more calculated approach to introducing the bikes to cities, in many of which cycling culture already exists.
So we have an option for getting around in the city which decreases the strain on public transport, reduces the amount of pollution from travelling and gets us out there and moving. But it is still just a supplement to transport solution. It is great for the lucky few that live within a 15-minute cycle to work, but what about the folk who live further out, even outside of the city? How can we move people efficiently through our cities without the use of cars but also still keep journeys short and comfortable?
We have to reconsider how we design cities. European cities were designed and built mostly before the industrial revolution. People made most of their journeys on foot apart from the lucky few who could be driven around in a horse pulled cart. This is why European cities have tight networks of small roads and alleyways which can’t support large volumes of traffic. On the other hand, 20th-century cities were designed to accommodate cars as they were seen to be the transport mode of the future. Because of that, the streets became barren and void of life as they were not pedestrian friendly in any way. The Bijmer in Amsterdam was built as a modernist dream, and the huge buildings were all tied together with a series of sweeping roads to cater for the transport of the future. This however made the streets very cold and barren as no one had any incentive to walk or cycle. This post-war motor car wet dream can be seen all over the world as neighbourhoods are split by pedestrian and cyclist-unfriendly motorways, in a desperate attempt to hold together the ever-growing cities.
Human beings have an obsession with being the biggest and best. However, we are naturally more comfortable in smaller communities. We have evolved to have close relationships with about 20 people and to only remember about 100 to 150 people. We prefer shorter buildings that we can relate to (up to 5 floors), and are happy to live is small neighbourhoods that we recognise. Yet we live in huge sprawling mega-cities. To overcome the issues our cities have been plagued with for the last century, we need to downscale. Instead of building huge cities with giant economic hubs, we should rather focus on creating a network of smaller “villages” where people live within close vicinity of their work. Rather than people trying to get to the city centre by any means possible (trains, cars), they commute a very short distance to their work by either walking or cycling. The larger travel distances from the town centre to centre, which would be rarer journeys, could be instead taken by train or bus. The floating transport system would liberate people to make their journeys easy and personal, rather than being stuck in the soul-draining cycle of the daily commute.
These changes would be difficult to even experiment with, but with most innovations in history, people would be able to adapt easily. Economic centres don’t have to be close together due to the effectiveness of the internet for work and meetings. Millions of people are moving to urban areas, and we have a chance to rethink how cities should function. We can reconsider what a city is and whether the ancient model is still relevant for us in the 21st century.