Time for transport policy to get in touch with its inner hipster?

Something is happening to our bland, branded up high streets in the same way that something fundamental is happening to our urban economies. The hipsters have arrived.

Sure, Greggs and Virgin Money and all the other high street chains have most of the prime spots locked up but springing up everywhere, and at quite a rate, are shops, bars, cafes, barbers (or a fusion of all of them behind one artful plate glass window) which are ‘artisan this’ and ‘craft that’.. valuing the authentic, the independent, and the culturally and digitally savvy.

And behind those shaken up high streets, in former industrial areas and repurposed office blocks, similar preferences inform the wider ‘flat white economy’ or ‘new economy’ (the communications, information, digital and media economy) which is also surging. After all, most people are on some kind of computer most of their work and leisure time – the digital natives, and there’s money in it.

And just as for those (that can afford the prices) who are shifting away from boring chain stores in the high street for shopping, so too is a linked shift away from dull isolated business parks for working – at least for the refuseniks or those with the skills the booming new economy needs. All of which helps explain why more new economy businesses want exciting urban locations where ideas and talent can spark off each other rather than fizzle out in sterile suburbs, malls and business parks. In doing so, the new economy also joins the financial and legal sector which has always preferred to cluster in city centres.

What does all this mean for transport? Urban Transport Group’s latest report Banks, bytes and bikes explores this issue.

Much of existing transport policy has been predicated on the economic value that can be derived from reducing journey times between point A and point B. The not unreasonable argument being that reducing the time and cost of moving goods, people and services is good for the economy. This in turn has tended to favour ‘inter’ rather than ‘intra’ urban transport projects. After all that’s what business says it wants isn’t it? It’s certainly what a lot of business wants. But not necessarily what all business now wants to give overriding priority to. It’s not just greenies that are now prioritising making places interesting and accessible by active travel and mass transit, over traffic speeds and volumes – it’s the Corporation of the City of London. And it’s not just in European cities that this is happening – it’s in the USA too – as a fascinating contribution from the American Passenger Transportation Association to our report shows.

But it would be wrong to replace one monolithic view of what business wants on transport with another. It would also be wrong to ignore the needs of the thousands of employers and millions of people who do not work in city centres and who also work in less celebrated or in vogue sectors of the economy (such as  retail, catering and hospitality). This is one reason why we will be following up this report with one on urban towns later this year. However, a valid challenge from this report remains – which is: is it time for urban transport policy to better reflect the priorities of the new economy, and as part of that get more in touch with its inner hipster?

Two minute read on five thoughts from Cov on CAVs

Our smart futures strategy group met at the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick yesterday to find out more about Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs). Here’s five things I learned.

  1. The UK does joined up industrial strategy when it wants to. There’s some serious money going into CAV development and problem solving (including a big expansion of the CAV facility at the Uni of Warwick).There’s also a serious ambition to make the UK a world leader (headquartered in the West Midlands) based on a less silo’d and more cooperative approach than other nations which embraces testing, law and ethics, software and hardware. This is not a drill.
  2. There is no shortage of problems to crack and there’s no guarantees that enough of them are soluable any time soon. There’s lots of obvious ones about speed and safety but there’s plenty of less obvious ones too. For example, say the phrase autonomous vehicles and the associated image is often of someone reading a book in what used to be the driving seat. Yet I’m not the only one who can’t read a book as a passenger in a car, for more than thirty seconds without getting motion sickness. Good luck with sorting that conundrum out.
  3. The number one obsession on CAVs is safety. Compare and contrast with the relative apathy that exists around tackling the carnage currently taking place on the roads. Yet existing road vehicles are already becoming incrementally more connected and intelligent. And life saving technology like speed limiters is already available. Could some of the focus on safety which applies to future CAVs not filter through to present day connected vehicles? Or does the conventional car’s role in wider culture wars make that too hard? But for how much longer given how cars are changing and the scale of the suffering that car crashes cause?
  4. There’s a nagging feeling that for many politicians at least CAVs are about taking the current format for cars on the current format for roads – and making the cars autonomous. And that’s it – job done. But that doesn’t fit with the way streets are changing. In particular the way in which, in city centres, at least space for vehicles is being reduced in favour of space for people. Or initiatives like healthy streets which London is now seeking to make part of the DNA of transport planning in the capital. In fact there’s no real interaction at all between the thinking around the healthy streets / better places agenda and the CAVs agenda. Indeed if you want CAVs quick and you don’t want the accidents then bringing back pedestrian guardrails and criminalising jaywalking could help. But that’s not the kind of spaces between buildings that people want anymore. On the other hand you could see electric CAVs for logistics deliveries and street cleaning that could fit with the healthy streets / better places agenda…as well as being easier to achieve than a go anywhere autonomous saloon car.
  5. More widely does the CAV debate need some re-framing around what is the problem that CAVs are trying to fix, in what circumstances and on what kind of time frame? For example you could envisage CAVs platooning on motorways or shuttling in urban areas on fixed routes for particular purposes (such as hospitals, universities), or to cleaning the surface of a pedestrianised area than you could see the benefits of remaking an entire city’s streets around the need to make the considerable difficulties of go anywhere CAV saloon cars a little easier.

All food for thought for a project we will be initiating soon on issues and options for cities on CAVs. Where we will focus not on the tech per se but on what are the implications for the places that cities want to be of CAVs, what are the options, and how are cities in the UK and the wider world responding so far.