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The Future of transport in London

The Future of transport in London

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

The London Society host wonderful debates every year and in 2020 these have been successfully adapted to Zoom. Weston Williamson + Partners had agreed to organise and host a debate about The Future of Transport in London before the emergence of Covid 19 and the pandemic’s influence on the topic has obviously been immense. The debate started with an introduction to separate necessary short-term solutions whilst considering longer term aims. Five speakers were invited offering experience from the world of research, engineering, industrial design and service providers. An audience of around 50 submitted questions on line following each of the speakers’ five-minute presentations.

The broad range of speakers was really important. We all have a tendency for myopic vision based on our own preoccupations. As an Architect I have an optimism that design and technology will continue to improve people’s lives and help create civilised cities. Rem Koolhaas says “You can’t be an Architect without being unrealistically optimistic”. I was 12 when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon and that obviously had a profound effect. I was raised on a weekly diet of “Tomorrow’s World” and the infectious enthusiasm of Raymond Baxter and James Burke. Now that I’m older I realise that the moon landing was only possible because of the unswerving political will. I appreciate that the inventions so energetically trumpeted on Tomorrow’s World made it into production and common usage due to an alignment of associated improvements to more prosaic components such as batteries and more importantly social behaviour and timing. The past is littered with brilliant inventions at the wrong time, Otto Rohwedder’s 1912 bread slicing machine really wasn’t seen as “the best thing since sliced bread” until many years later.

Below Illustration by WestonWilliamson+Partners showing a green and pleasant city for 500,000 people with no private vehicles within the 2.5km diameter. The city has a high speed rail station as it’s centre and is serviced by drones and AI.

So it was fortuitous that Professor Glenn Lyons was the first to present.

Glenn is the Mott MacDonald Professor of Future Mobility at UWE Bristol. He is seconded for half his time creating a bridge between academia and practice. He has focused on the role of new technologies in supporting and influencing travel behaviour both directly and through shaping lifestyles and social practices. Glenn thought it important that we ask the right questions. Not “How can we make a driverless car that works and doesn’t kill people?’ but “Do driverless cars help address climate change, social inclusion, liveable cities and improved public health; and if so how?” Glenn’s presentation showed the futility of predicting 2050 by looking back 30 years to 1990. The advances (even with the enthusiastic presentations of Tomorrow’s World) were impossible to predict. If this pandemic had happened in 1990 how many of us would have been able to work from home, how many of us would have been able to shop? Glenn’s view is that we need the future to be vision led not forecast led. “It’s not a case of predict and provide but decide and provide. Decide what we would like to happen and develop a strategy to achieve it”. To sum up his presentation Glenn’s wish was that we all live local and think global- the pandemic is teaching us just what a small fragile interconnected planet we inhabit.

The Government’s recent decision to bring forward the ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars to 2030 is to be welcomed but is just one of many improvement we need to make.

The next speaker continued with the theme of predictions. Dan Phillips heads the Royal College of Art’s Intelligent Mobility Design Centre. I first became aware of Dan’s work from a wonderful 2018 exhibition at the London Transport Museum which incorporated amazing contrasting visuals generated as a response to extensive research into attitudes on the Future of Transport. The research reveals fears that the new technology would exaggerate social division where automation and streets would be for the privileged with roads and technology priced for the wealthy. Previously Glenn had quoted the Science Fiction writer William Gibson “The future is already here- it’s just unevenly distributed”. Dan warned “Companies like Amazon and Uber have never made inclusivity their mantra” and that cities could become more isolated and automation could empty our High Streets. There are however great opportunities and cause for optimism. The choices are ours. Research showed that people’s aspirations are for an improved public realm and that London would become quieter, vehicles would become smaller and streets would be safer.

Right: One of Dan Phillips’s visuals illustrating the aspirations for the use of future technologies.

Kay Hughes is the Design Director at HS2 and a passionate advocate of a low carbon future. In her presentation she showed examples of High-Speed Rail integrating with local connectivity and was optimistic that developments such as electric cycles would enable local distribution for people and also goods using cargo bikes from neighbourhood centres. To illustrate the point Kay showed the 2016 NIC winning competition winning scheme for the Oxford to Cambridge corridor which illustrated many of these concepts developed with the VeloCity team Kay was concerned that Post Covid research showed that 70% are anxious about public transport and we will need to work hard to promote higher levels of confidence.

Kay Hughes is the Design Director at HS2 and a passionate advocate of a low carbon future. In her presentation she showed examples of High-Speed Rail integrating with local connectivity and was optimistic that developments such as electric cycles would enable local distribution for people and also goods using cargo bikes from neighbourhood centres. To illustrate her point Kay showed her 2016 competition winning scheme for the Oxford to Cambridge corridor which illustrated many of these concepts. Kay was concerned that Post Covid research showed that 70% are anxious about public transport and we will need to work hard to promote higher levels of confidence.

Left: Kay Hughes presented the VeloCity team 2016 Oxford- Cambridge Corridor proposals as an example of integrating high speed with local connectivity which she is bringing to her current role. The NIC Winning scheme was by the VeloCity team, the first all-female team to have won an Infrastructure competition of this type. www.velocityplacemaking.co.uk

In order to look to the future you have to understand the past

Steve Jobs

Anthony Dewar’s presentation looked to past Network Rail station designs in order to predict the future. As Steve Jobs said “In order to look to the future you have to understand the past” Anthony as Professional Head of Architecture at Network Rail is currently organising a competition to design the Station of the Future for small and medium stations which make up 80% of their building stock. The stations will knit with the community evoking memories of Bernard Cribbins in the Railway Children but suiting modern life and current demands incorporating necessary services.

Anthony showed images from ‘Total Recall’, ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘The 5th Element’ before closing with an example of how a vision of the future can be learnt from the past. Anthony’s closing image was of Motorail which British Rail operated from 1996 to 2005 “An illustration of how old technology could be put to new use demonstrating the possibilities for automated vehicles capable of inner-city travel at slow speed driving onto a high-speed train travelling long distances.”

Last but by no means least Industrial Designer Paul Priestman founder of Priestman Goode is a visionary. Paul showed wonderful examples of future thinking for the infrastructure in London. Projects proposed by private companies becoming involved in the provision of public transport creating choice and opportunities. One example was his Dromos vehicles which fit two people and link together on the road to travel longer distances. These privately funded initiatives are a reminder of the early days of the Victorian railways where private companies were the innovators. Paul believes that the numerous emerging options will allow people to make the right choices.

It is always a pity that Zoom cannot recreate the atmosphere of the question and answer session as there were some fantastic questions from an engaged audience but it’s not quite the same when questions have to be read from the chat bar.

Concerns were raised that Transport Planners had got it wrong in the past and there was no indication that the various visions of the future might be similarly flawed. Examples of distrust were offered and witnessed by the numerous objections to local traffic calming measures in Hackney, Islington and elsewhere. Anxiety was expressed that we could be swopping one set of environmental problems for others. The hope from the panel was expressed that greater research and community involvement would ensure this was not the case.

No discussion on the future would be complete without discussing the impact of both slow moving airships and the ultra fast-moving Hyperloop. Opinions on their use and the timescale for possible implementation varied widely. Covid has demonstrated that close virtual contact is better than close physical proximity. There is a case to be made that high speed broadband is cheaper, safer, more environmentally friendly and enables civilised cities better than high speed rail. Moving at slower speeds but being connected would be attractive and might allow possibilities such as greater utilisation of the River Thames for commuters and tourists as just one example.

In closing there was an optimistic consensus that the City would re-emerge better and stronger. Learning from history Leonardo, Michelangelo and Picasso all thrived through times of plagues. Each time cities have adapted and improved. Hopefully changes will be made and the unhumane conditions of the daily commute will be a thing of the past. My own proposals for incentivised timed travel was met with a stoney silence but other proposals for prioritising pedestrians and cyclists warmly welcomed.

Below: Chris Williamson’s proposals to encourage greater confidence in returning commuters

The pandemic has highlighted huge inequalities which are apparent in our urban environment and these must be addressed. My own daily cycle rides have shown me what poor external spaces we provide in social housing often for our key workers who have helped us through this pandemic. The consensus was that the political will to improve and redistribute is emerging. We need to make our cities more civilised for everyone, improving air quality, reducing noise, encouraging connections with nature. Already some examples such as the replacement of some parking spaces with high quality landscaping in areas like Marylebone High Street is showing the way forward. There were encouraging signs from other cities such as New York that this is happening.

Below: WestonWilliamson+Partners proposals for part of the Old Kent Road where the Bakerloo Line Extension will bring great opportunities for regeneration.

The key is investment in public transport and the public realm. It is worrying that important projects with a strong business case such as Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo Line Extension have been put on hold. London has in the recent past led the world by introducing the congestion charge and putting the money into transport improvements. This has seen London re-establishing itself as a true polycentric city giving people choice as to where to live, work and relax. Other cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Toronto are learning from our example and perhaps Los Angeles with their additional tax to fund transport is now showing a way forward. Let’s hope that London’s anxiety about public transport is short lived and that we work together to continually improve our wonderful City.

Below: WestonWilliamson+Partners proposals to traffic calm Broadway throughout the entire length of Manhattan. Sir Terry Farrell and others have proposed similar visions for busy parts of London

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Related Thoughts

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.