Cities are growing at an incredible rate, but they are also slowing down. Rapid advances in technology may offer new mobility solutions, but traffic often moves no faster than a horse and cart. With space already at a premium, city planners – and private companies – are being creative and ambitious in their efforts to get people moving.
In established cities there is a trend to exclude cars from the centre and create more cycle paths. The Danes are building 186 miles of cycling superhighways, while in Utrecht, Holland, the world’s largest multi-storey parking area for bikes has been unveiled.
Rapid advances in technology may offer new mobility solutions, but traffic often moves no faster than a horse and cart
Fighting for space
In France, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has banned cars from the lower quays of the River Seine to make way for pedestrians and cyclists. The scheme is loved by Parisians but hated by commuters because it pushes more cars into fewer roads, which, in turn, slows down traffic. There is simply not enough space to go round.
Hence the possible appeal of the Sea Bubble, which has already been tested on the Seine. An electric hydrofoil water taxi, it can fit up to four passengers and reach 17mph, but creates no waves, noise or emissions.
“In 2050, there will be 4 billion cars on the streets and, even if they are all powered by clean energy, it will still create a massive traffic jam,” says Anders Bringdal, co-founder of Sea Bubble. “Every city has waterways that are fairly unused. Think about having a giant freeway that goes straight down the centre of the city – and no one uses it...”
Rivers, no doubt, will provide part of the solution, but the sheer weight of traffic means planners need to use all available space more efficiently. To avoid gridlock in Xiamen, China, the world's largest elevated cycleway has been built more than 5m above the ground, just below the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system. Up to 2,023 cyclists at a time can use the 8km cycleway that connects five residential areas and three business centres in the city.
Car maker BMW and China’s Tingyi University have drawn up an even more ambitious plan to create a network of enclosed tubes for scooter and bike traffic above the streets of Shanghai. With full climate control, the tubes would allow cyclists and scooter users to ride all year round, while avoiding the heavy pollution.
Tubes – albeit underground ones – are also part of the billionaire Elon Musk's Hyperloop, in which pods can travel at speeds of up to 700mph. Because the pods travel in a vacuum there is no air resistance.
With full climate control, aboveground tubes would allow cyclists and scooter users to ride all year round, while avoiding the heavy pollution
The 3D cityscape
Autonomous cars also have immense potential to free up precious urban space. Vehicles with level 5 autonomy will communicate with each other through wireless networks, passing each other safely with precision. On the move 24/7, they will be able to act as delivery vehicles at night, once again freeing up space when it is most needed.
Autonomous helicopters are also expected to start criss-crossing the skies. Flying taxis will take off and land vertically from skyports on top of office buildings and public spaces. The so-called eVTOLs (electric vertical takeoff and landing) will not be loud fossil-fuel guzzlers, but quiet and electrically powered.
There will even be cars that take to the skies to avoid jams. The Terrafugia TF-X is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle with semi-autonomous flight which can take off vertically using pusher propellers on retractable wings. After use, and commuter traffic avoided, it can be landed and driven into a single garage – just in time for dinner.
Autonomous helicopters are expected to start criss-crossing the skies… There will even be cars that take to the skies to avoid jams
Optimising city space
Meanwhile, increasingly connected cities in which infrastructure and vehicles communicate in real time via the Internet of Things will ensure space and safety are maximised. Information about traffic build-ups or hazards, for example, will be relayed to vehicles, allowing them to select a new route.
“Cities of the future will eliminate gridlock through smarter public transport, including autonomous vehicles and ‘micro-transportation’ such as eScooters and delivery drones,” says Heiko Schilling, head of navigation, VP of engineering, for technology company TomTom. “Connected, centralised systems will gather and share data to improve traffic flows of both vehicles and pedestrians and will also manage available parking spaces more efficiently.”
Roads may become smarter in other ways, too, including the ability to wirelessly charge car batteries. Sweden opened the world’s first such electrified road – 2km of track near Stockholm – in 2018 with the aim of keeping electric cars charged and car batteries affordable. “Dynamic charging” – as opposed to the use of roadside charging posts – means the vehicle’s batteries can be smaller and cheaper.
It's not all good news for drivers and cyclists though. Anyone transgressing the rules of the road in a bid to beat the traffic is likely to be spotted... by the 24/7 drone police!