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Beyond the Car - The Future of UK Urban Mobility

15/05/2013 14:03 BST | Updated 15/07/2013 10:12 BST
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The majority of car journeys are made by just one passenger; a hugely inefficient way to get around. It is expected that the future of (powered) urban transport will be in much smaller personal vehicles, and will encourage the use of more semi-autonomous transport systems.

But how do we get to these changes and what benefits would they bring? This was the starting point for a debate at Nesta this week - also facilitated by Policy Exchange and the Oxford Martin School - entitled Hands off the Wheel: Is it time to rethink urban mobility?

More than half the world is now urban and discussions on urban mobility tend to start most easily with the car. Approach to car ownership is changing in complex ways across the planet - in the USA, driving is no longer the rite of passage or status symbol it once was; licenses held by 17 year olds are down by 20%. However, in industrialising nations like China and India, car ownership is rising rapidly.

But let's specifically focus on what's happening in the UK. Dr Malcolm McCulloch, Director of the Institute for Carbon and Energy Reduction in Transport at the Oxford Martin School believes that smaller, semi autonomous vehicles could be on the road fairly regularly within the next five years if given enough support - this would have obvious implications for insurance and legislation so would be complicated to implement but would help deliver significant benefits.

Redesigning urban mobility would not only reduce the impact on our wallets and the environment but freeing up space currently taken up by congestion, half-empty cars and acres of car parking space would allow us to divert space to walking, cycling and green space; impacting on health and quality of life.

And there are workable concepts out there. Nathan Koren, an associate at Capita Symonds, was involved in the introduction of a driverless pod system used at Heathrow that celebrated its 2nd birthday this week. In that time, it has removed the need for 150,000 bus journeys; quite a figure when you account for the fact the system is 70% more energy efficient. Koren told the audience on Tuesday night it is worrying there isn't government support to implement such systems more widely, saying it simply doesn't fit into any existing funding pots. Current policy on low carbon city transport seems largely embedded in the desire to replicate current models, rather than taking the opportunity to creatively rethink mobility and encourage different travelling behaviour.

And a change of behaviour is urgent. Our dependence on car transport has a major negative financial impact - road collisions are estimated to cost the UK economy £8.7bn and car pollution costs us £10.6bn.

London is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with a larger GDP than New Zealand, and that presents its own challenges and opportunities. London has more than half the UK's Nitrogen Dioxide air pollution, and 63% of London's air pollution comes from transport. It has been reported that 9% of deaths in London may be down to air pollution.

Speaking at the event, Eliot Treharne, senior policy and programme manager at the Greater London Authority said this was the time for a step change in how we approach transport in cities, just as his predecessors had moved power stations out of city centres when it was clear what damage was being done.

Changes already implemented in London - from the congestion charge to investment in public transport - have had demonstrable impact. And more diverse changes are being planned: Boris Johnson has already proposed an 'Ultra Low Emission Zone' for London, meaning only zero or low emission vehicles would be allowed into the city centre by 2020.

A significant amount of investment is currently being made into electric and Ultra Low Emission Vehicles. This will deliver significant environmental benefits but Treharne pointed out that this is only a stepping stone to the ultimate goal: even if we all switched to electric cars tomorrow, we would still need space for the growing number of people wanting to access our cities. We need to invest in ideas and programmes that move us beyond the car.

Whilst we await any movement on smaller and autonomous systems, there is progress in non-mechanised transport. Johnson has also announced plans for a near £1bn investment in cycling in London. It was revealed on Tuesday that this is almost certain to be scaled back due to government contributions and whilst this reduction is a huge shame, if his plans are put in place on any significant scale they will still be a huge step forward.

London is in a great position to implement innovative changes due to its size, economy and political structure. It must use this unique position to show the rest of the UK and beyond how we can practically rethink urban mobility.