11 June 2013 — How will cars shape the cities of the future? How will electric cars and greater focus on pedestrians and bikes change urban planning.

It’s an important question because urban planning and the way architects plan the infrastructure of cities was shaped in the 20th century by motor vehicles becoming mass-produced and taking over cities. As more and more cars started appearing on city streets, and increasing numbers of people started owning cars, urban planners had to reinvent cities and urban infrastructure. As a result, cars shifted to the centre of most city planning projects.

Now, cities built around cars are not eco-friendly at all. That’s not only because they reduce air quality. It’s also because they create more energy demand at a time when supply is being stretched. Also, cities are becoming more overcrowded and traffic congestion is getting worse, creating massive problems for the economy.

According to one report from the Department of Transport and Regional Services, congestion is estimated to cost Australia $9.4 billion, comprising of $3.5 billion  in private time costs, $3.6 billion in business time costs, $1.2 billion  in extra vehicle operating costs, and $1.1 billion in extra air pollution costs.  The again, it could be a lot more. Clover Moore argues it costs Sydney alone $4.6 billion a year and its forecast to rise to $8 billion in 2015. Costs include travel time, unreliability, higher vehicle and fuel costs.

So far, there haven’t been any serious efforts so far to start developing infrastructures that will cater to people, instead of cars.

But there are indications this is changing in the 21st century.

Witness, for example, the way more and more cities around the world are looking at congestion levies. In Milan, they have a system called Ecopass. It charges differential rates according to the emissions of the particular vehicle. London and Stockholm have schemes based on numberplate recognition using cameras, and both charge a fee when a user crosses the cordon boundary.

One of the most striking examples of this shift is the Japanese city of Nagoya which is creating a car free centre.  Nagoya has the best transport network in Japan, and possibly the world. There isn’t a single area of the city that doesn’t have a station. The result: you can live quite easily without ever needing a car. Nagoya is also smaller than most Japanese cities so no train journey takes more than 30 minutes.

Also city planners in Nagoya are putting in more trees. And they are making the city centre a lot more pedestrian-friendly by reducing the current four car lane-system, which is the feature of cities around the world now, to two. By doing that, they are creating a model for the city of the future that’s sustainable and people-friendly.

The city of Vancouver already hosts car-free days (scheduled for Sunday 16 June) where Vancouverites flood the streets on foot.  Similarly, planners are building a car free city in the Chinese city of Chengdu. They are creating a “buffer area”’ of gardens and greenery making up 60 per cent of the total area of the city. Walking from the centre of the city to the green spaces takes just ten minutes, and other nearby urban centres will be accessible by public transport.  On a smaller scale, there’s Swanston Street Walk and Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne. According to the City of Melbourne Transport Strategy, walking already accounts for 66 per cent of weekday trips within the council’s boundaries.

That’s forecast to rise to 69 per cent by 2030. Walking trips are important for the local economy, with 36 per cent of walking trips being for business purposes, and it is the primary mode for shopping, tourism and city visitors. Walking has also grown as more people have come to live in the municipality – 49 per cent of Southbank residents and 34 per cent of Docklands residents walk to work. Meanwhile, car trips within the city are falling, and expected to continue reducing. Growth is expected in cycling and public transport use.

And in America, the suburbs are dying, reports the Financial Times, with more people now living in the cities.

“This puts the brakes on a longstanding staple of American life – the pervasive suburbanisation of its population which began with widespread automobile use in the 1920s, to the present day, where more than half the US population lives in suburbs,” William Frey, a leading US demographer told the FT.

So how would this affect planning in cities? Obviously it could increase density without the congestion. In New York, planners have created pedestrian only zones, prohibited turns into certain streets and created bike networks. Planners in Copenhagen are focused on creating more public transport and enforcing parking rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Copenhagen has been a pioneer city when it comes to recognising the social value of pedestrian paths, starting in 1962 when the main street was pedestrianised.

This trend has continued. In Copenhagen, 35 per cent of all transport trips are made by bicycle, 90 per cent of residents there own a bicycle and 37 per cent make their daily commute by bike, which is up from 30 per cent in 1996. In surveys, people say they take their bike to work because it’s so easy. In other words, it’s because of good town planning.

Some commentators say these trends could create mini-cities within cities, which keeps the money circulating locally. That means local codes could be changed to enable car-free apartments, and incentives provided to encourage smaller-sized grocery stores to set up shop near those apartments. And the habit of having all-residential or all-commercial in a building could be stopped, opening up first floor retail space anywhere there were already-standing apartment buildings.

Similarly, we can expect the electric car to change the way people use their houses.

The electric car market has some hurdles to clear before it can ever take off but its future could be assured if it can feed back into the grid and be incorporated into the cities of tomorrow.

But electric car companies are coming. While companies like Better Place went out of business because they misjudged consumers’ willingness to embrace the new technology and because the electric car battery alone costs as much as a new petrol-powered car, Tesla has produced its first profit with no advertising, no ad agency, no chief marketing officer and no dealer network. No problem.

So how will the electric car change cities? According to the International Transport Forum, electric vehicles may be useful for matching intermittent solar and wind power supplies to demand. IKt says they could soak up excess off-peak power  supply and feed power back into the grid when needed.

“EVs could feed electricity stored in their batteries back into the system (Vehicle-to-Grid, or V2G) or directly into the home or office (Vehicle-to-Home, or V2H). Vehicles are parked an average of 95 per cent of the time, providing ample opportunity for their batteries to be used for  V2G supply. An EV owner with no immediate need for his vehicle may be willing to feed power into the grid, if the price the grid company pays for this power is high enough.”

What that means of course is that governments will have to change electricity prices specifically for electric vehicles to encourage the use of these cars to supply power back to the grid. The electric vehicle market is minuscule today, but with a Smart Grid, they could potentially serve as a fleet of mobile batteries that could store power until it is needed by a homeowner or grid operators during peak power demands.

And the technology is already there.

The New York Times tells us about how the University of Delaware is developing a nascent form of electric car commerce where the power flows two ways between the cars and the electric grid, as the cars inject and suck power in tiny jolts, and get paid for it.

In the Delaware project, each car is equipped with some additional circuitry and a battery charger that operates in two directions. When the cars work with the grid, they earn about $5 a day, which comes to about $1800 a year.  At this stage, it’s a small project, using 15 two-passenger Mini E models, donated by BMW so it’s nowhere near the scale required to keep the grid system that serves two-thirds of North America in balance. But the scheme has enormous potential to match supply precisely to demand. And Nissan is offering a similar device in Japan that allows consumers to power their houses when the electric grid is down.

Meanwhile, GM and ABB are turning old batteries into uninterruptible power supplies that keep a house going for a couple days. There’s a little known trick here: your iPhone or laptop battery is a goner after a couple hundred discharge-recharge cycles, but after a decade of use a car’s lithium-ion battery still holds at least 70 per cent of the power it had on day one.

Pablo Valencia, GM senior manager of battery lifecycle management says: “In many cases, when an EV battery has reached the end of its life in an automotive application, only 30 per cent or less of its life has been used. This leaves a tremendous amount of life that can be applied to other applications like powering a structure before the battery is recycled”.

Cars are getting smaller, which means less congestion. Car makers are now building Micro EVs, which are light-weight folding electric vehicles designed purely for city car-share use. The unique fold-up body relies on a central pivot. It tips the front passenger module forward and up so that the rear trunk module can slide and tuck beneath it. When folded, the 2.5 metre-long car shrinks to a scant 1.5 metres, allowing three-and-a-half of these cars to fit in a standard parking space on a street.

The cooperative – the Hiriko mobility group – has embarked on a program to produce a prototype of the Hiriko Fold microcar. The consortium has partnered with the MIT Media Lab and the Spanish government, which supplied $18.5 million of the total estimated $87 million budget. The word Hiriko is from the Basque, meaning “from the city”. Folded, the Hiriko measures only 1.5 metres long, making it more compact than a Smart car at 2.7 metres.

Work is also under way at Stanford’s Centre for Automotive Research, based in Palo Alto, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, for driverless cars.  The BBC reports that these cars are not only safer, they cut congestion. According to Kent Larson, head of the Future Cities program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, most cars in cities aren’t used 90 per cent of the time,

“The Holy Grail is a vehicle that can drive itself and park itself and charge itself autonomously,” says Mr Larson.

“At that point, wherever you are in the city, you can call for a vehicle. It can come to where you are and you drive off.

“When you reach your destination, you get out of the car, put it into autonomy mode and the car goes back to wherever it needs to be, ready for the next trip.”

Or BMW is making a new sub-brand called “i”, producing it from cutting-edge carbon-fibre technology, which is supposed to offset some of the extra weight of the batteries.

According to one firm of architects, Ecola, in Portland Oregon, all this will profoundly change our cities.

“Take these elements together and world opens up where you no longer own a car, but pay into a subscription service that you access from your phone and where an autonomous car comes to your door several minutes after you order it.  You go to work, shopping, or on the town in a car that drives itself.  For most trips they will likely be small electric cars, but when you order, you will have choice, depending on the number of people and where you are going.

“If you don’t own a car, you no longer need to house the car, so houses will go back to being a house, rather than an appendage to a garage.  The current debates about parking and the amount of off street parking will become irrelevant.  The cars won’t park near your house, business or at shops.  When you get out the cars go to transport the next person. They will eventually be parked in very efficient parking structures where they will be cleaned and prepped for the next days’ service.

“The result for cities is that parking lots, essentially empty spaces between buildings, will become available for other uses.  Public spaces will still have cars, but the balance between them and pedestrian uses will start going back toward pedestrians. It will offer interesting design challenges of how to transform the typical shopping mall.  What do you do with the parking?

“The size of streets will be impacted since traffic will be more efficiently regulated. There still be high traffic times but the overall number of cars will be reduced. This means the need for on-street parking also starts to disappear, leaving for more space for pedestrians and bicycles and other activities that traditionally were parts of streets, but where shoved off due to cars.”

It’s happening already. Cities like Genoa have developed on demand public transport services. Just call a bus and it will come and pick you up.

Cars have shaped our cities since the beginning of the twentieth century and they’ll continue to do it. But we can expect them to change urban design in very different ways from what we have now. The cities of tomorrow will be very different.

 NOTE: In recent news from From Environmental Leader

  • Leyden Energy Inc., of Fremont, Califoria, has been awarded a $US2.28 million contract from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium to develop an advanced lithium-ion 12-volt battery system to meet or exceed the performance, light and cost targets set by group, reported Autobloggreen. USABC is a consortium group made up of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. The award to Leyden was also funded in part by the US Department of Energy.
  • Concurrent Technologies Corporation has been awarded a $15 million increase on an existing Air Force Research Laboratory contract. The $15 million award established CTC as the lead design and integration organisation on the Department of Defense Plug-In Electric Vehicle Program. The contract was initially awarded in June 2009 and had a capital ceiling value of $98 million. The ceiling was raised to $113 million so CTC can continue to work on technologies that will help US Air Force reduce and eliminate toxic and hazardous chemicals, materials and waste streams, while improving energy efficiency and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Applied Natural Gas Fuels has entered into a long-term supply agreement with the Orange County Transportation Authority to provide liquefied natural gas to its fleet of 282 LNG buses. The contract calls for the producer and distributor of natural gas to provide OCTA with an average of 400,000 gallons of LNG per month for the two fueling stations OCTA owns and operates.

Leon Gettler is a freelance business journalist, author and podcaster. He works for a range of publications and produces two podcasts for RMIT every week: Talking Business and Talking Technology. He has an acute interest in the environment, its impact on business and the response of businesses and governments.

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  1. We have yet to see (voluntary) car-free days in Sydney. In the meantime the reality for petrol and diesel cars is this:

    World car production grows 3 times faster than global oil supplies

    The oil industry will make sure there will never be EVs in large numbers. Example:

    World Has 10 Years of Shale Oil: US Department of Energy

    But it’s all a sales pitch

    So the car-free days will come when the peak oil problem has arrived at the filling stations