This might sound like something out of a science fiction film but imagine a transport system powered by renewable energy that lets you zip around on autonomous pods above the ground quickly and smoothly. But already this futuristic vision has attracted interest from the likes of the Future Cities Collaborative Research Centre, government agencies and major vehicles manufacturers. Besides, four years ago we all thought flying Ubers were sci-fi too.
Borrowing from nature’s playbook is not new in the design of the built environment but what if we scaled this up so that entire cities could more closely mimic the clever and efficient patterns of nature?
This is the out-there thinking of Nigel Reading, an architect and designer with a sustainability focus who has worked with Arup on the London Overground. Now the design director of Asynsis Architecture + Design, his latest project brings in 20 years of design theory and research into practicality to solve multiple problems facing human societies at once.
His “Metaloop” model could see people moving around cities in the same seamless way blood and nutrients travel around the human body.
Transport systems already somewhat resemble the human respiratory system – main roads are even called “arterial roads”. But these systems are far from efficient and seamless, with traffic jams plaguing Australian cities to the point that “congestion-busting” has become a top priority for the federal government.
Much like a monorail, the Metaloop rises above congestion on the ground in an elegant, plant like structure. There are three layers: the first platform is for walkers, the second for bicycles, and the third for autonomous vehicles capable of taking people anywhere they want to go, at pace.
These travel pods would come with retractable wheels that allow them to provide door to door service, attaching onto the central transit system where ever possible so that they can whiz above the traffic below.
Pedestrians, cyclists and pods would access the platforms on a collection of ramps and stairways, Reading told The Fifth Estate.
“There aren’t stations in the traditional sense, the idea is that the transitions are as fluid and seamless as possible and minimise congestion.
“It’s about bringing the station to you.”
He says the transit system would likely be made from aluminium and steel, and potentially also cross laminated engineered timber.
He foresees former industrial zones repurposed to build the modular poles and bridges that can be assembled onsite. This next generation technology repurposing is already occurring in these abandoned industrial sites, with the old Holden factory in Adelaide now used for home battery assembly.
One benefit of going overhead would lead to low disturbances on the ground, apart from the foundation for each post.
He says the only way to beat this mode of travel way is with flying cars. But with minimal places to land and insurance issues to contend with, it’s unlikely they will become a form of mass transit and are likely to be reserved for the elite, much like helicopters already are.
The model is already attracting support and attention from Australian governments, transport agencies, the Future Cities Collaborative Research Centre and major corporate organisations in the energy and transit sectors, including global market-leading vehicle manufacturers.
A physics theory put into practise
The Metaloop draws from a new theory in physics called “constructal theory”, which is essentially the idea that self-similar, scale-free “flow” structures we see in nature, such as veins in bodies or water in rivers, are the most efficient ways of managing limited energy and resources.
“We’re just trying to emulate Mother Nature.”
He also says it’s a low risk way of designing infrastructure for quality control.
“Billions of years of evolution can’t be wrong.”
The concept is best explained in Reading’s 2014 TEDx talk in Hong Kong.
More than mobility
Metaloop is not just a transport system. Much like the various interlinked systems of the human body, Reading’s model interconnects the flows of resources and energy into the transit system.
It would be linked up to and powered by renewable energy sources. It will also be hooked into sustainable food production hot spots – Reading envisions precincts with hothouses growing fresh produce – so it can be moved around the city with speed and precision.
“It’s linking people flows, energy flows and resource flows, if you like, combining them into a single multi-modal platform for efficiency.”
He says the model has the potential to solve multiple “wicked problems” at once by simultaneously decarbonising and decongesting our cities.
The plan would be to install the system across the main congestion points in a city at first, such as above high volume roads and train routes, it would then likely expand organically to cope with fluctuations in demand.
The business model
This isn’t the sort of technology that will come together under our existing siloed way of organising our societies. The only way a Metaloop might actually work, Reading says, is if public and private organisations come together in a consortium.
It might start off government-led and commissioned, especially the first few, with green bonds one possible way of financing the projects. There might be a government-owned operator – much like for trains or trams – but private mobility providers such has Uber might actually own and operate the autonomous pods.
The interconnected systems would also rely on food producers and electricity utilities. There would also need to be support from the likes of superannuation funds to make the concept viable at scale.
Reading so far sees five streams of revenue coming in: Fares from the autonomous vehicles, renewable energy generation, food production, advertising revenue and the sale of data.
“We have the advantage of a system that would be highly profitable.”
Some of this revenue would go towards creating a more just and equitable society as part of the licensing arrangements. For example, commuters might choose to have 10 cents of their fare go towards building shelters for the homeless.
“So MetaLoop would serve to not only liberate people-goods-clean energy-food resource flows and make our cities safer, more active, less congested, more decarbonised, cleaner, and more connected (while creating more nodal dwell spaces along our high-streets); but it could also help curate and fund a more just, flourishing society,” Reading says.