Can Advanced Transport Create Sustainable ‘Virtual’ Cities?

Cities are good for sustainability, and mobility is good for the economy, but it is increasingly clear that private motor vehicles are incompatible with cities as well as encouraging sprawl and dependence elsewhere. Can we have the best of both worlds by connecting multiple neighboring centres sustainably by advanced public transport?

In developing economies, uncontrolled growth of urban motor vehicle use is causing severe congestion and pollution, while displacing other sustainable modes. Even in the UK, the promise of environmental legislation, fuel-efficient ‘clean’ engines, and catalysers has proved a mirage, according to the British Medical Association.

In the next decades, autonomous electric and shared vehicles should avoid some local pollution, and might reduce congestion, but they will not reduce demand for road space, and could increase car-dependence by offering ‘homes and offices on wheels’ to ex-drivers and non-drivers alike. If society goes down this road it will be difficult to reverse out of it.

The elevated autopias of the mid 20th century are no longer taken seriously, but General Motors recently revived the dream with its Electric Networked-Vehicle (EN-V), a personal Segway-like ‘pod’. Accepting that such vehicles are just concepts, two things are striking: the traffic is always free-flowing, with never a queue seen, and pedestrians and cyclists somehow avoid conflicting with it.

Outside urban areas, personal mobility favours a dispersed energy-dependent lifestyle, potentially unsustainable and vulnerable to global events. Within cities the trend is towards densification, giving social and agglomeration benefits, as well as a way to accommodate an increasing population.

However, dense radial cities also have drawbacks. Centres become congested and accommodation unaffordable, less-desirable inner suburbs may turn into ghettos, and there is never enough public transport or road space to cope with the daily implosion of workers and visitors.

Transport should be integral to the built environment not parasitical

‘Garden cities’ are not the answer to housing people sustainably, even where free-standing rather than attachments to a ring-road like ‘Uxcester’. Milton Keynes, the archetypal post-war green city, has higher car-use than some traditional towns like Cambridge.

Unless severance is increased undesirably, safety may limit automated road vehicles to not much above today’s speeds. Conventional high-speed rail is considered suitable only for linking major hubs separated by at least 150 kilometers, maglev is still energy-hungry, and current bus and rail are too slow to integrate a region over distances of a few tens of kilometers.

Linking neighbouring cities along linear corridors by advanced and sustainable high-speed high-frequency public transport, integrated with local services for access, could achieve ‘virtual densification’ without the drawbacks of megalopolis, and without turning the countryside into motopia. In a post-industrial region like ‘The North’ this could provide the unity needed to overcome the gravity and shadow effect of London.

There are plans to enhance connectivity in The North, but they cannot fundamentally change the relationships between its population centres. In the more distant future this may rest on a new technology, to achieve the highest possible speeds and frequencies with minimum impact on the environment while making maximum use of existing paths.

Do you think ‘virtual’ cities connected by ‘super-metros’ are a sustainable and socially and energetically viable alternative to concentrating population in mega-cities or dispersed dependence on individual transport? What kind of transport technology could make this possible? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.