Transition tales #13: Back to the Future

London plans to reclaim the streets for its residents by moving the car traffic to an underground infrastructure system. Is this ‘smart mobility’ project shifting the utopian idea of a flying car system?

On the 21st of October 2015, the world celebrated the date Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrived from the year 1985 in their DeLorean time machine. Released in 1989, the film Back to the Future II had a surprising image of how cities would look in 2015: hover boards as relying modes of transport, holograms as means of communication and a remarkable sense of fashion. What stood out even more in the movie, and what we have always kept in mind about the future, was the image of flying cars.

Back to the Future II

So in the future, flying cars and skyways would solve the problem of traffic. This scenario sounded pretty amazing back then, but now that we are getting close to the end of 2016, where does that progress on transport stand? An architectural office in London came up with a surprising alternative: an entire underground transport system for cars, or CarTube.

CarTube concept ©PLP

Envisioned by Lars Hesselgren, the Director of Research and Senior Associate Partner at PLP Architecture (London), the CarTube concept is based on a complete transformation of urban mobility as we know it in the present: self-driving electric cars and an underground network of automated tracks.

“CarTube integrates existing motorways with a network of small bore tunnels. Automated cars, circulating above and below ground, are controlled via a dynamic platoon system allowing cars to move within milliseconds of one another.” – PLP Architecture

The proposed concept plans to mend the urban mobility issues faced by cities nowadays and to reclaim the streets for people. Moving around in cities has become complex, with an increase in modes of transportation. Cyclists argue for more bike lanes, the urban sprawl of cities expands the public transport system and cars still hold the number one spot in transport modes. Regarding this situation, Hesselgren notes: “concepts like the CarTube are meant to challenge existing approaches to urban transport, inviting us to explore new options for greener, safer, more exciting, and better connected cities.”

CarTube transport system ©PLP

 Following the outline of ‘smart mobility’, the main objective is to reduce the disruptions from urban life caused by increased traffic. Developing an interruption-free journey model – replacing the traffic lights and other traffic barriers – in simulations, CarTube proved a reduction of 75% in urban travel time. Also, the completely high-tech tunnel network is designed to maintain an accurate distance between cars and to monitor entrances/exits, thus reducing the risk of accidents and traffic collisions considerably.

“The idea is that parking and vehicle storage are completely automated and they respond directly to your needs – no need to wait, the system will ensure you can travel exactly when you want, to wherever you want.” – PLP Architecture

Although the CarTube seems to follow the general urban trend of increased technologization of services, the question arises: is this is the best alternative for street traffic reduction? As The Guardian reported recently, there are cities tackling the same issues with simpler and cheaper solutions: increase the number of bike lanes, control car access to city centres, or increase the options for public transport. Moving beyond the fact that this would be an expensive alternative for infrastructure, we also need to consider the existing infrastructure systems of the cities it is going to be implemented in.

Taking the example of London, as CarTube’s case study, we are discussing a city with an already existing, extensive, public transport system. The maze of the London Underground, with tunnels connecting at various levels, poses difficulties in implementing another traffic system underground. PLP’s solution to this situation resides in the fact that the proposed CarTube will be completely integrated within the existing Motorway infrastructure, as a natural extension of the car system into London. This extension would go beyond the edge of the urban core, providing an alternative for the city’s expansion that creates daily congestion situations. It still sounds hypothetical, but with an advertising pitch of a 14-minute journey from Heathrow to London city core, we should not underestimate this potential dream of the future city.

Even if Hollywood’s version of the future city 2015 did not become reality, and a project such as CarTube might not exist beyond concept images; proposals like these enable us to think creatively about solving the predominant crisis of urban transport and what we are expecting from the future city. The Guardian did mention that the CarTube team is meeting with collaborators, including Google, to move the project forward. Thus, the futuristic images might become reality. The future seems to be underground.

Watch the video below to have a glimpse at the future city.

Transition tales

The stories we present reside at the intersection of planning, culture, politics and economics. We introduce a series of weekly uploads from a number of sources (conferences, interviews, summits), that offer a better image on the way cities are changing and what are the ideas behind this transitioning.

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