Then and now – has London mobility improved?
London’s heatwave has once again highlighted a major issue with the Tube. It is too hot. Designed by the Victorians for a city with five million fewer inhabitants, the soil around the tunnels cannot absorb heat as well. This caused the Central Line to reach over 35 degrees last week. On the older and deeper lines, TFL has been unable to find a solution.
This is quite a bleak picture. However, it gives a vivid example of why there is so much interest in new ways of commuting. The year 2009 doesn’t seem so long ago. But in a world before 4G networks, the options for travelling in London were much more limited. You could take the train, get a bus, a cab or ride a bike. Santander bikes, previously called ‘Boris bikes’, were only introduced in 2010. Uber wasn’t due for three more years. While Drive Now wouldn’t become London’s first dockless car-sharing service until 2014, letting people pick up and leave a car in different locations.
What’s all this about sustainability?
More recently the public consciousness has become more focused on sustainability. This has given rise to a new generation of mobility solutions. Obike was the first dockless bike-sharing scheme, launching just two years ago. Last year saw Lime become the first dockless e-bike sharing scheme. These initiatives both promote active travel, a key goal for the government, as well as filling in some of the more difficult journeys in central London. For example, getting from Soho to Marylebone is surprisingly difficult if you don’t want to walk! Obike and Lime have been joined by many competitors. Some of which have already fallen by the wayside. Both Drive Now, part of SHARENOW, and Zipcar have introduced electric cars onto London’s streets. They provide an emission-free way for Londoners to get around for short journeys.
The explosion of new mobility services tackles some serious issues. For example, improving air quality and encouraging people to be more active. However, for me, one of the big reasons we have seen such enthusiastic uptake of these new solutions is that they are really fun. Being able to jump into a convertible Mini when the sun is out, or cruising across London on an e-bike are excellent. They enhance the journey beyond just getting from A to B.
Where do we go from here?
The rapid pace of change in technology (in 2009 the iPhone 3GS launched in June!) has left our street infrastructure and government legislation lagging behind. Electric scooters are illegal to ride in the UK, apart from on private land. But a lightweight electric vehicle to cover ‘last-mile’ journeys is something that many are willing to flout the law for. As more electric cars become available to buy or hire, London will need considerably more charging points. While e-bike usage rapidly rises, London’s streets are still seen as too dangerous to cycle on by thousands of potential riders. We are also starting to see tests of self-driving cars on public roads. This gives us a glimpse of the kind of sci-fi future that until recently only existed in films.
We need a balancing act. New solutions must not endanger public safety. The potential to drastically improve the urban environment is obvious. However, a lack of regulation can lead to sometimes fatal consequences. Alternatively, too much regulation could stifle desperately needed innovation and progress. The Government and service providers must ensure they are able to communicate clearly and work towards common goals. Over the coming years, they must secure a future where consumers have a choice when it comes to mobility. If the Central Line is too hot, there should be alternatives.