But watch out for flying pigs in nappies.

Futurologists predict that bicycles will reign in British cities

At a conference in London held today an audience of futurologists, city planners and local authority bosses heard predictions about the cities of the future. Alongside “bullet pods”, popular with future-facing experts since the 1950s, a series of new reports also predict that the cities of 2065 will be teeming with tech first developed in the 1860s: bicycles. The “Future of cities” conference was organised by the Foresight Project, an initiative started in 2013 by the Government Office for Science.

The Foresight Project is led by the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport. At today’s conference reports were published from the cities of Cambridge, Newcastle and Lancaster. Cambridge is expecting an explosion in cycle use. Newcastle’s report calls for “transport and highway design” to link up with “public health benefits”. And Lancaster’s report asked children for their views – apparently, in the future it will be illegal to eat brussels sprouts.

With more than half of Brits now living in 63 cities there will be increasing strains on transport infrastructure in the future, especially if many people want to get to the same places at the same times.

Projections from the Office of National Statistics suggest that the total UK population could increase to 77 million by 2050. “People in cities: the numbers”, a Foresight Project report, suggests that “new ways of urban living will be necessary in the future” due to our current “car dependency as a nation”. In short, car use will have to be curtailed, if we want the cities of the future to work for the increasing numbers of people expected to flock to them. And despite calls to build more roads to cater to increased demand for car travel this will not be possible or desirable, believes David Metz of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London. In a Foresight Report he wrote “increasing population density precludes enlarging the road network to accommodate a growth in car-based mobility.” 

Increased use of bicycles – and more walking – will have to be part of the future, said Sustrans in a report produced for the Foresight Project

Such “active travel” leads to fitter, happier people, claims Sustrans. Most experts now agree: to reduce congestion and gain population-level health benefits politicians of the near future will have to bite the bullet and enforce car restraints in cities. Driverless cars are still cars, said Metz. “There is much current excitement about the prospects for driverless cars. But these are essentially taxis with robot drivers.” Instead of planning for more cars, driverless or otherwise, cities should be investing in cycling which is “an important mode in some successful developed cities, which can relieve crowding on public transport and may allow some deferral of investment in expensive new rail routes.” He added that even in the most car-dense cities “cycling can be revived and can make an important contribution if promoted through the introduction of cycle lanes and low cost bike hire schemes.” And to make cycling and walking more feasible Metz said there would have to be “unavoidable constraints on car use in dense urban areas”.

This is also a recurring theme in Cambridge’s vision for the future, published today. The city is already Britain’s top cycling city, and Cambridge’s academics and planners want to see even more reliance on cycling in the future.

“Visions of Cambridge in 2065” said the Cambridge of the future would be a “healthy city” and part of the way to achieve this would be by “improving the city’s cyclability.” Over the last 20 years Cambridge has become Britain’s Silicon Valley, with tech businesses springing up because of local authority support and close links with academia. The city’s brightest brains – and the city has more than its fair share of these – recognise that cycling will play an increasingly important part in the sustainability, mobility and therefore success of Cambridge.

In the new report, Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, painted a picture of the future: “Pedestrians and cyclists rule Cambridge roads thanks to redesigned road systems. The risk of serious injury on the road has declined dramatically, with none reported in the past 10 years.”

Cambridgeshire County Council Economy, Transport and Environment Division appears to want to act on this prediction, saying that “In 2031, the people of Cambridgeshire will benefit from an integrated transport network which enables efficient and reliable travel between key destinations in support of a thriving local economy. This will be fed by a comprehensive system of long distance cycle/pedestrian routes connecting key destinations.”

Cars won’t be needed so much in the Cambridge of the future, predicts Dr Anna McIvor of Transition Cambridge: “The excellent public transport network within Cambridge has reduced the need for personal car ownership … Cycling is by far the most popular form of transport, with its health and fitness benefits.”

Even those who insist on driving personally-owned motor cars to “bullet-pod” stations recognise the importance of getting people on to bicycles. (Other people, that is.) Professor John Miles, the Royal Academy of Engineering Research Professor in Transitional Energy Strategies of the University of Cambridge, envisions a future of “cigar-shaped” pods, presumably running on rails. Looking into the future (or at Tokyo, really), he wrote, in H.G. Wells-style: “It was barely light and slightly chilly as [our hero, perhaps the professor himself?] crossed the short distance from his car to the cigar-shaped ‘Bullet’ and stepped into the soft warm glow of the long, thin cabin. The pod was warm and it took off automatically in the direction of his office, effortlessly navigating the final mile of his journey at 12 mph alongside the early morning build-up of pedestrians and cyclists who also travelled to work along the wide landscaped pathways which criss-crossed the site.”

Another sign that Professor Miles might be a little too wedded to his car comes in the suggestion that his bullet-pod future won’t require any restraints on motorists. “All of this, [our hero] reflected, had been achieved without any draconian fines, car movement restrictions, or excessive parking charges imposed from above. Rather, it had all happened because the Bullets and autopods had simply made it more attractive for commuters, visitors, and residents alike to use them in preference to using their cars.”

That politicians will have to impose restraints on car use is suggested by University of Cambridge computer scientist Dr Alan Blackwell. Talking far more about today’s situation than the future, he wrote: “A constant threat is the rural County Council that holds authority over Cambridge roads, who often seems to promote short-sighted policies that favour oil-burning traffic over cycling provision.”

The future looks brighter in the city itself. Councillor Lewis Herbert Leader of Cambridge City Council said his vision of the future was one where “getting around is primarily by public transport, bike and on foot.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, kids also imagine a future with lots of bicycles. Lancaster’s vision of what the city would be like in 2065 was compiled from the views of children. “Bikes will become literacy,” wrote one child, possibly meaning children of the future would spend less time in schools and more time riding bikes. “It will be illegal to eat brussel sprouts,” wrote another child. Lancaster collated 548 of these ideas into its report. 38 percent of the idea were labelled as “wacky” because they involved fairies, unicorns or other fantastical elements. “Homework will [be] stuck on planet Jupiter,” wrote one optimistic child. Another wanted a future where everybody had access to a “cupcake with a monkey inside.” The authors of the Lancaster report wrote that children tended to focus on “future objects that they are familiar with in their own lives, rather than more abstract processes like governance systems.” You don’t say.

Lancaster’s report also included insight on why we might have an obesity epidemic – an awful lot of the 548 ideas suggested by children involved the effortless and copious intake of sugar, and at least one dreamt of a future without any physical exercise, pining for “moving pavements so you don’t have to walk everywhere.”

While laudable, asking children what they want to see in the future is risky, as evidenced by one child’s desire to see “flying pigs wearing nappies.” It was not stated whether this was a transport option.

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