The Telegraph: Londoners in 2050 won’t need cars. They’ll be living in an app-powered eco-capital

Published 12 Sep 2016

Written for The Telegraph, click here to read the online article

he success of London in 2050 will be measured by its environment. By this I don’t just mean the quality of its air, or whether it has retained its biodiversity, important though those are. I mean the overall quality of life for Londoners. Will they experience the city as spacious, efficient, healthy, and resilient? Or will they experience it as overcrowded, dysfunctional, stressful and insecure?

The background to the question, of course, is London’s continuing population growth. The only safe assumption – seeing as London is the greatest city in the world – is that Mayor Sadiq Khan and his successors need to be planning for a city of 11 or even 12 million by 2050.

Continuing to develop London’s transport system will be key. We simply have to keep investing in rail and underground capacity, the single best way to move people around the city at scale without overwhelming surface transport and streetscapes. Londoners still have no idea of the impact Crossrail will have when comes on line in 2018. By 2050 we must have Crossrail 2, probably Crossrail 3, and be working on Crossrail 4. We will also need significant upgrades to overground commuter rail, which is now set to transfer to Transport for London (TfL). And we will want every extension to the Underground and several of the East London river crossings currently under discussion.

While the rail and underground system in 2050 will look recognisable to today’s Londoners, if significantly expanded, surface transport will not. Technology is going to change the way we move around to an extent we can barely imagine. It’s not that we will be swooshing around town in driverless pods, taking delivery of our groceries by drones, but pervasive use of digital technology will enable massive shifts in our modes of transport – and very much for the better

In London, as in most cities, around one third of road space is taken up by parked cars, a really daft use of road space (not to mention a vast subsidy for those who happen to own cars). Private cars have had a good century: they have dominated our streets, for good and for bad, but they palpably going out of fashion in cities around the world.

It’s not simply that public transport is improving – remarkably so in London – it is also that owning a car is no longer the key to urban mobility which it used to be. If you need a car, you now summon one on your phone – whether it is a cab, or a minicab. Need to get out of town? That’s what car-clubs are for. Need a van? There’s an app for that. And maybe you don’t need a car at all, because now you have an all-knowing travel-planner in your hand, so you can make sense of all those train and bus routes and timetables. Or perhaps you’ll just walk – because now even tourists can find their way around unerringly, using the maps on their phone. Or jump on a Boris bike (and yes, they will still be called that in 2050).

Private cars have had a good century: they have dominated our streets, for good and for bad, but they palpably going out of fashion in cities around the world.

So what are we going to do with all the parking spaces this revolution will free up? Bus lanes, cycle lanes, filter lanes, pocket parks, cafés, even housing. Or car-club parking spaces: for every 12 people who join a car-sharing scheme, 11 cars are taken off the road.

Of course our streets will still be busy – we’re talking about London after all. But one thing we won’t have is taxis and minicabs circling around looking for their next fares. Even though most of London’s vehicles will be electric by 2050 – they will be cheaper and better than internal combustion vehicles on all dimensions within the next decade – clogging our roads with empty vehicles already makes no sense at all. With or without drivers, taxis and minicabs will be parked up, waiting to jump into action at the click of a button.

Digital management of road space and parking, along with the electrification of almost all vehicles, will have solved London’s current air quality problems by 2050 (though we may be worrying just as much about metallic and plastic dust, rogue nanoparticles or volatile organic compounds by then).

Our power system will be entirely based on renewables and nuclear power, with natural gas as back-up. More importantly, London’s buildings will be vastly more energy-efficient and clad in unobtrusive solar photovoltaics, saving Londoners billions of pounds in utility bills.

London’s population growth and climate change mean that the super-sewer will be seen for what it is: a costly, over-engineered white elephant, which fails to solve the problem it was meant to eliminate. By 2050 we will have shifted to sustainable drainage approaches to rainfall management.

London will be a sea of green roofs, new roadside and rail-side parks, restored riverscapes and permeable road surfaces. The Green Belt will have survived more or less intact.

“London will have spread East, and it will be more densely populated. But it will still be the greatest city in the world.” Michael Liebreich

By 2050, we will have commissioned a second tidal barrier and enhanced flood protection, to make absolutely sure that London is spared the catastrophic floods that will be increasingly affecting coastal cities around the world.

London will have spread East, and it will be more densely populated. But it will still be the greatest city in the world. It will provide a wonderful environment in which to live and work – and it will have to, because other cities will be competing relentlessly to attract the smartest, most mobile knowledge workers.