Travelling into the Future: Work in Progress

The Design Museum's event this month saw topics ranging from the pedestrian and bike, to the controversial jetpack and driverless car.

With a nod to Godwin’s Law, how about a law named after Sir Frank Whittle? In any discussion about personal transport, Whittle’s Law states that as such a discussion grows longer the probability of somebody mentioning the jetpack approaches one. Mention of the jetpack duly arrived during the Design Museum discussion on travel in London. And it was duly parked.

A more realistic (in terms of cost and energy needs) futuristic vision was also aired – the driverless car. The driverless taxi – an uber innovation, perhaps – and driverless delivery trucks also appeared: White Van Unmanned.

The panel discussion did have a driver – Alastair Donald was in the chair. He’s a researcher on mobility and space and the British Council’s Project Director for the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He introduced the rest of the panel:

  • Tim Fendley of Applied Wayfinding, who has revolutionised pedestrian navigation of the city through Legible London. He lives in Bath and commutes to London by train and then motor cycle
  • Sam Pearce, who hopes to radically alter cycling through his Loopwheel design with in-built shock absorption. He lives in Nottinghamshire and commutes by car, because “what option do you have if your journey doesn’t fit into the existing public transport system?”
  • Leo Hollis, the urbanist author of several books, including Cities are good for you. Leo used to walk everywhere from his central London flat but with each child has moved a mile north. He still walks to work when he can, but it now takes two hours.

The panelists (left to right), Leo Hollis, Sam Pearce, Tim Fendley, and chairing the discussion, Alastair Donald.

Travelling to and within London was given one-word descriptions by audience members before this panel discussion at the Design Museum, part of the London Festival of Architecture. ‘Work in Progress’ is the 2015 LFA’s theme.

They included ‘frantic’, ‘me time’, ‘boring’, ‘fun’.

Note, ‘fun’ was contributed by someone who does not live in London.

The slow cities movement is seeking to put the brakes on the pace of movement in our conurbations, but the discussion explored whether the city – London in this case – has already passed peak speed.

The suggestion is made that we are now travelling no more than our parents did, and we are the first generation to experience this. Is it a success or a failure on our part?

Alastair questioned if we have become reductionist and stopped being expansionist in our movement, dimming our once burning aspiration to travel?

Sam’s teenage son experiences through his phone screen, and has little desire to (travel to) and experience the gigs he watches online.

Leo says the millennial generation is eschewing the opportunity to obtain a driving licence. Partly that must be due to the cost of insurance, but what other forces are at play?

Young (and not so young) adults continue to live in their parental homes, experiencing digital expanse but compressed physical horizons.

But here we are, physically in the audience at the Design Museum discussion, proving by our presence that people will continue to travel, to be able to do what they want.

The compact city can diminish the desire/need to travel, and, said Leo, the purpose of cities remains – getting many people together in a small space. It’s good for creativity and for civility and it’s green.

Indeed, travel these days always comes with baggage of the environmental kind, unless you are walking or cycling.

Tim pointed out that a vehicle is an essential in sprawling cities, as in the US. And Tim, through his work on mass transit systems in North America, sees cities looking to improve or reintroduce public transport.

Tim presenting his ideas on mass transit systems in Toronto.

London is lucky, says Tim, with Transport for London unusual in its control of all the transport modes and with huge investments such as Crossrail. Contrast that to San Francisco with its multiple transport systems that don’t connect and have different payment cards for each.But London will have 11 million people soon. The transport system needs to expand by 70 per cent, says Tim. Where are we going to put it?

But London will have 11 million people soon. The transport system needs to expand by 70 per cent, says Tim. Where are we going to put it?

London needs to transition to a future without, or with fewer, cars, says Leo. It is only recently that we realise how much we have lost a as a result of the city being redesigned for the car. To unpick that problem will take a good couple of decades.

Leo pleads for those sharing our roads to do so in a more cooperative and mutually respectful way. [Designer Peter Murray, in his ‘Listen’ article in the current edition of Blueprint, argues that cyclist casualties of London’s roads have been failed by design – of vehicles (specifically HGVs) and of infrastructure.]

Cycling is peddled a lot during the discussion.

Sam’s wheels are smoothing out city bumps for commuters in London and other world cities. He identifies the electrically assisted bicycle as the kick the bike needs. “You still have to work but you don’t have to sweat. You don’t have to shower afterwards,” he says.

Sam Pearce with his loopwheels on a Dahon folding bike.
©Loopwheels

Would Amsterdam volumes of cycling tame the London driver? Or is the tribalism of UK cycling too entrenched?

Alistair observes: “I look at cyclists and at people driving cars and I almost sense a hostility to users of other types of transport users.”

That’s not just a city phenomenon. Sam recounts how, to adapt to a back injury, his production manager at Loopwheels commutes 15 miles in a three week recumbent bike and suffers sustained abuse from drivers who find it harder to overtake than a two wheeler.

“He has as much right to be on the road as they have. People have to understand that fossil fuels are going to get more expensive, so why not cycle and get yourself fit too.”

Getting fit in the active office is touched on – those where you see the stairs before finding the lift, offices designed with cold air vents above desks and coffee stations as far away as possible.

Walking also engenders human contact. Indeed, in the US the entrepreneur Tony Hsieh is exploring his collision theory that the number of collisions between people per hour per acre is a multiplier of human potential.

Try that on the London Underground. Public transport, argues Alistair, is a haven of silent civility. “People on pubic transport are incredibly civil. Civic engagement is allowing people space, to get on with what they want to be doing. We don’t appreciate it but we are incredibly polite and accommodating to each other.”

The panel divides on the topic of the self-driving car. Despite its introduction in California, Leo has his doubts that there will ever be the political will. Tim sees the advantages, such as the truck that only needs to stop at its destination and not for the driver to have a nap.

Questions from the audience cover the Thames, the desirability of central planning, population redistribution, HS2 and that least subsidised transport type with the least right of way – the pedestrian and her/his need for a legible city. Walking does, after all, make up 55 per cent of journeys in London, says Tim. Transport systems and indeed cities need to explain themselves to make them easier to use.

Walking does, after all, make up 55 per cent of journeys in London, says Tim. Transport systems and indeed cities need to explain themselves to make them easier to use.

That would inform the choices we will make about whether to travel and, if so, how.

Alistair closed with the thought that in a carbon context, modal choices are becoming moral choices.