I wrote a feature for the Evening Standard that was published on 1 August – very, very exciting for a Londoner who has read that paper more times than I’m willing to admit. They also added it to their site too, though with a “2020” headline, which is SO SO WRONG. 2050 would be more like it. Anyway, you can see it here: http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/this-is-how-commuting-in-london-might-look-in-2020-a3308946.html
To celebrate this being publication week, I thought I’d share the unedited version with you, my lovely blog-readers. No doubt the editing improved it, but you’re used to me being raw and waffle-y, so I suspect this version might be more familiar to you! Enjoy x
The future of commuting
Developments in science and engineering could utterly transform the way we travel through our cities. Laurie Winkless tells us more…
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Londoners are obsessed by transport. It’s understandable though – despite commuting an average of just 12.8 km, we apparently spend 350 hours (that’s more than two weeks) per year getting to and from work. Whether we take the tube, train or bus, or even drive, walk or cycle, the commute is rarely the highlight of our working day. With an ever-growing population, and a public transport system already under pressure, it’s tricky to see how it will improve in coming years. But there are some seriously futuristic technologies under development in research labs across the world that might just transform the daily grind for London commuters.
Trains will get a makeover
The Docklands Light Railway excluded, driverless trains might seem like a faraway dream, but in fact, Victoria, Jubilee and Central line tube trains already have the ability to drive between stations and stop and start automatically – the driver is there primarily to ensure passenger safety. Other cities, like Copenhagen, have fully embraced autonomous trains. Their metro system is run almost entirely by computer, with a small team of people monitoring the system.
Looking further ahead, the future of trains is magnetic. Japan’s maglev trains reach close to 600 km/hr because they use carefully-designed magnets to keep their trains floating above steel rails. But researchers in California believe they can make them even faster. Punching through the air at high speeds takes a lot of energy, so they’re attempting to build a maglev train that travels through huge vacuum tubes. If they’re successful – and it’s very early days – these trains could travel at close to the speed of sound, taking you from London to Edinburgh in 20 mins.
Electricity will take centre stage
A growing number of buses on London’s roads are hybrids, using both an engine and an electric motor to power them. But as efforts to reduce emissions in the city centre pick up pace, we’re likely to see a wider move to fully-electric buses. An innovative charge-while-you-drive system being trialled in Gumi, South Korea. As an electric bus drives along a 10 km-stretch of roadway, it interacts with magnets buried in the tarmac. A receiver on each bus converts this magnetic energy into an electric current, gradually charging the batteries.
But perhaps there’s an even better solution. Hydrogen fuel cells cars produce their own electricity, by continuously combining oxygen gas (from the air) with hydrogen gas (made using excess energy from wind turbines). These cars still need to refuel their hydrogen tank, but unlike vehicles powered by petrol or diesel, they emit only water vapour. Currently, there are just three hydrogen refuelling stations in London – at Teddington, Heathrow and Hendon. But with six major car brands now manufacturing fuel cell vehicles, many more stations will be built, leading to cleaner air for everyone.
Cyclists and pedestrians get a head start
A large number of London’s commuters don’t take public transport at all. They are the cyclists, and every day in 2014, 36,000 of them took to the roads – three times as many as in 2000. And more cyclists on the road means fewer fuel-belching vehicles. So how can the city become more cycle-friendly for future generations? When it comes to cycle lanes, London is already learning from Copenhagen, a city where half of the working population hops on a bike every day. But technology can also help. A new system being trialled here uses radar and thermal cameras to detect the presence of cyclists sitting at a junction. Where high numbers are present, it can adjust the traffic signal immediately, to give them more green time than the vehicles behind them. More trials are planned, and if successful, London will become the first city in the world to give cyclists an official head-start. Similar technologies are gradually being rolled out for pedestrians too, giving large crowds longer to cross the road.
Flooring could harvest energy
Imagine you could generate electricity just by walking down the street or along the platforms of your local tube station? The idea may not be as far-fetched as you’d think. Paving slabs and floor tiles that harvest energy are under development in a number of labs. Some are focused on solar-powered cycle routes, footpaths and carparks, while others tap into warm paving slabs and roads as a source of hot water for nearby buildings.
Future commuters may even see their footsteps transformed into electricity, thanks to tiles that harvest kinetic energy – that is, the energy used while walking. They work by being bent or squeezed, which means they feel slightly bouncy underfoot. Such tiles produce tiny amounts of electricity, but it might still be enough to power lights or ticket gates. One company is trialling slabs like these in Heathrow Airport, while commuters in two train stations in Tokyo have been testing them for several years. If we see their widespread use in London, perhaps entrepreneurial commuters could get a discount on their tickets, in return for losing some of their energy!
Traffic lights might disappear
We’ve all been there – stuck in a rush-hour jam, wondering how this can still happen with all the technology available to us. Driverless cars have long been suggested as the solution to free-flowing traffic in cities, but it’s not quite that simple. Results from a London university showed that when we have some driverless cars on the road, traffic congestion could actually get worse! But when every single vehicle can self-drive, the benefits could be enormous… and they could do away with traffic lights altogether. US scientists recently found that by continuously communicating with each other, driverless cars could speed through junctions safely – no green lights needed.
But what would that mean for cyclists and pedestrians? Frankly, it’s all a bit unclear, although many suggest that driverless cars could ultimately make the roads safer for those not on four wheels. Self-driving buses are currently being tested on public roads in the Dutch city of Wageningen, and other urban pilot schemes are well on their way, so watch this space.
London will clean its own air
Alongside changes to London’s transport network, the air we breathe will also get an upgrade. Because cities use a lot of heat-absorbing surfaces like tarmac, they tend to be hotter than rural areas. By planting more trees in London, we’ll cool the city, reducing the use of air-con. Trees also absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide – this inspired researchers in Canada to develop a giant wall of fans that can do the same thing, especially for areas where trees can’t grow. Another air-cleaning tech is titanium dioxide. Tiny particles of this chemical can be applied to billboards, roof tiles, paving slabs, and building facades. In the presence of light and oxygen it purifies air, by breaking down pollutants and transforming them into much cleaner compounds.
—To learn more about these and other technologies, pick up a copy of Science and the City: The Mechanics behind the Metropolis, by Laurie Winkless, from 11 August (£16.99, Bloomsbury Sigma)