Perth is a sprawling city. Some even call it the "best planned sprawl in the world" (Jones 2012). The city extends over 90km North to South, identifiable by the ever widening highways to accommodate the relentlessly demands of congestion, and the city centre dominated by a 8 lane freeway. While it is commonly acknowledged that cars are detrimental to the development of a "good" city, Perth decision makers continue to approve and fund major upgrades, with road works being our own "Never Ending Story".
I myself have been a massive advocate for the development of greater mode share, through combinations of walking, cycling and public transport. I have battled through long debates by fans of the private vehicle, sure in the knowledge that I was on the moral and sustainability high ground. However, I have recently begun to question this attitude for one simple reason:
The unpredictable wildcard of technology.
Let me explain.
It is obvious why cars are so popular. They are private, comfortable, time efficient (mostly), secure, and sexy. They allow the individual to access anywhere with a road in any way that the driver chooses. It can connect people with places more directly then any other form of transport we have available to us. However, the car is bulky, reliant on expensive fossil fuels, costly to buy, keep and maintain, and when driven poorly, extraordinarily dangerous.
Public transport is seen as our sustainable saviour. However, no matter how regular, it is infrequent, very public, and at times, unsafe. Walking is great exercise and good for experiencing a place, but is slow, exposed to the elements and can be dangerous, especially at night time. Cycling is direct, relatively fast and fun but is also exposed to the elements, lacks protection in the event of an accident, and is labour intensive.
Do we accept these faults as the way things are and problems we have to put up with? I propose that we are on the cusp of a transport revolution, where all these problems become a thing of the past. And best of all, Perth is perfectly poised to drive this revolution (pardon the pun) and become the envy of the world.
Introducing the electric powered autonomous satellite guided car (EPASGC). Utilising established technology championed by high-tech pioneers google and car manufacturers such as Volvo, the EPASGC enables every person, creature, or object to become a passenger in a vehicle. Not requiring wires, cables, or rails, the EPASGC travels by electricity on 4 wheels to anywhere with a road and a GPS signal. Completely breaking down our paradigms for travel, passengers sit facing toward each other the pod-like fuselage.
While this sounds fine and dandy; the rich folk get to drive around in luxury while the common folk drive their gas guzzling dinosaurs. But stop a moment and think of the possibilities of this technology.
A city where no one owns a car.
That's right, zero private vehicle ownership.
A public transport system, revolving entirely around EPASGC's.
Now this may sound drastic, but consider the implication of a technology that not only drives its passengers where they need to go, it also **PARKS** itself wherever is most appropriate. A technology connected to a Main Roads central servers that feed informing the car of the fastest route, busy points, and crashes. Congestion becomes a thing of the past as the car, informed of all the cars around it, varies its speed to ensure a smooth and steady ride. Traffic lights become obsolete as the cars communicate with each other about who will have right of way. Using sensors, it can detect pedestrians and cyclists movements well in advance to ensure safety for all road users.
A transport paradigm where there are zero speeding and drink driving accidents, two of the biggest preventable causes of deaths in Australia. Stress attributed to congestion, traffic, and having to concentrate for extended periods of time is almost entirely negated.
The system would work just like the existing taxi service. The customer would book a car for the time they needed it or when they wanted to arrive. The car would arrive and wait patiently out the front for the passenger to enter. Inputing the address into the GPS, the car would determine the best route and effortlessly drive to its destination. The EPASGC fleet would have a range of different sizes, from single seaters to mini buses. This would mean that every vehicle on the road was being run at optimum efficiency, with no empty seats. Utility vehicles could be hired to transport and courier goods, ranging from small package transport to large multi-ton trucks. The cars computer would anticipate the orders and their destination, and be able to coordinate multiple deliveries per trip.
There are some questions that need to be considered.
There would invariably be spikes of demand around peak periods, putting pressure on the limited number of available vehicles. Car pooling would be more practical in this scenario, however, would sharing a small vehicle with strangers make the system less desirable? It must be considered that more people per vehicle moving to the same destination would be good for maximum usage per vehicles while creating an opportunity for positive social interaction.
Perhaps peak hour traffic would be automatically imply carpooling, while off-peak carries no such condition.
The system would work best when utilised with other forms of public transport, namely heavy and light rail. A solution could be the cost of a pod ride is subsidised when travelling to the nearest public transport stop, and a premium when travelling door to door. The EPASGC would make an ideal feeder system to facilitate greater use of an established mass-transportation networks.
An increased number of vehicles on the road could ensue more traffic on the roads. This would be especially observed in the short to medium term while the system must share the roads with existing private vehicles. A solution could involve the pods connecting to large arterial craft running on freeways and highways making the system more practical or efficient.
The kicker of the plan is after the car has alighted its passengers, it automatically goes to the nearest car park/charging station in anticipation of its next customer. The car park/charging stations could be stacked by elevators, creating towers to minimise the car park footprint. The cars would automatically be plugged in when they get stacked ensuring they are always charged and ready for use. The charging stations should be primarily powered by renewable technologies like wind, wave, and solar power. Private transport can finally be powered sustainably on a large and accessible scale.
An investment of this scale would require a massive upfront cost, but in reality no more than the cost of a new heavy rail network. Apart from necessary maintenance, running costs are negligible.
EPASGC would be small, fast and independent meaning their general wear and tear are minimal. Powered by electricity, the help in reducing a cities carbon footprint and making the argument for renewable power more financially viable. The consumer can enjoy the luxury of private travel without the financial, safety or environmental burden of owning, maintaining and driving a private vehicle. Technology may enable a comprehensive transport paradigm shift, and should be considered when planning a cities transport strategy.
Our society has a precedent of such a paradigm shift; the embracing the private vehicle in the early 20th century.
What is preventing us from doing it better and more sustainably right now?