Transport me back to the future

October 04, 2021

Originally published on Stuff.

When, as a child, you were asked to describe your vision of the future, did it bear any resemblance to the world as you knew it back then? The future I remember promised robot warehouses, flying cars, and a hotel on the moon. So three decades on, and ludicrous as much of it still sounds, we’re about halfway there then.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the future has to be exciting enough to inspire and bring about change. And the reason I’m trying to make it, is that when it comes to reimagining how we get around our cities more efficiently and with less environmental impact, our thinking risks being stuck in the present.

Our future transport planning, and funding, is predicated on the notion that our needs will continue to be met by the same modes we’re using today. As Simon Wilson recently pointed out in his evisceration of Auckland Transport’s latest RLTP, our ambition at least in our biggest city seems to be to soak up the impact of growth, not encourage the behaviour changes that will ultimately be required to reduce our contribution to climate change. And we’re therefore missing a generational opportunity.

When we at JLL talk about the CRL as a game-changer for Auckland, we do so in the context of its ability to reconnect increasingly disparate parts of the city. But in terms of transport, we need to see it not as a game-changer, but as a catalyst for further future-focused transport infrastructure and solutions.

From Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, to electric roads that charge autonomous vehicles as they move, imagination will one day become reality. In the meantime, I believe our journey to the future of transport will need to urgently embrace five key themes to support thriving cities: energy, the sharing economy, big data, automation, and inclusivity.

It does feel now that we’re hurtling towards a future that will consign both gas-guzzling and self-driven commutes to history. Performance enhancements of EVs, both in terms of the drive experience and battery strength, are increasing as prices fall, to the point that within the decade it’s anticipated that you’ll be able to buy an electric version of your favourite make and model for less than the current cost of your petrol-powered one.

But as Uber’s Lewis Mills touched on when he presented at our Future Cities event in Auckland recently, switching from gas to electricity might ease the environmental impact of congestion, but it won’t ease the congestion itself. Which brings us to the role of the sharing economy.

Uber’s ad to highlight the folly of single occupancy vehicles should resonate with most Aucklanders. The mobility company’s immediate contribution to a collective solution here in Auckland is a trial for Uber Commute, facilitating ride-sharing between Uber users to and from work, while elsewhere in the world there’s Uber Pool. When allied to first/last mile assistance through e-bikes, scooters, or lest we forget walking, and integrated with public transport ticketing, then there is real hope through this for behaviour change on a grand scale.

One of the factors most commonly trotted out by us Aucklanders for jumping in our individual cars to get from A to B is the lack of synchronicity between connecting transport services, allowing neither speed nor convenience. For this, enter big data.

Smart Cities of the future will be shaped by data. Impersonal as this sounds, this will actually create environments that are in fact more personal and personalised to our individual and collective needs. In terms of transportation, data will help identify mobility patterns, align multi-modal services, predict and offer real-time solutions to congestion and other trip quality factors, and importantly, inform us as to the environmental impact of our travel choices – thereby removing our excuses for driving solo and confronting us with its impact.

Whether we drive ourselves at all is a point of conjecture that is perhaps most closely aligned to how we have viewed the future for generations. Autonomous vehicles have always seemed like the future’s tipping point; but finally the day seems to be almost here. Autonomation should significantly reduce the cost of transport as a service, to the point that it will be significantly cheaper than owning and operating your own car. Combined and synchronised with other transport options, the way we move about our cities promises to be smarter, quicker, cheaper and more sustainable.

Of course, none of these technological advances in transportation will matter one bit if our cities’ infrastructure and the civic amenities that support them are not designed for all their residents. As Women in Urbanism’s Emma McInnes pointed out in her presentation at Future Cities, the gender imbalance that characterises the make up of our city-shaping organisations continues to manifest itself in design, architecture and services that are skewed to traditional male needs.

From a public transport system ill-equipped to deal with the complex travel women and/or care-givers need to take, to the confronting statistic that over 70% of women have reported experiencing harassment in the public realm or on public transport, the fact is here in New Zealand we need to acknowledge that the solution we require, while driven by data, is not purely a technological one.

For inspiration we need only look at how we have adapted our buildings to meet the challenge of climate change and, more recently in terms of our commercial stock, changes in demand. Our new buildings are sustainable, inclusive and designed as much for tomorrow’s world as today’s. But buildings are just the dots, and the challenge remains as to how to best connect them. For this, I feel it may be worth pausing to consider what our future transportation needs might look like through the eyes of a child, before we just resort to more of the same.

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