An Ancient Perspective on Driverless Cars (using Oslo as an example)

Thinking of ways to improve transport in an up-to-date city like Oslo is like thinking of a birthday gift for your only-child nephew. What do you buy for a city that has everything already? There are multiple ring roads and car parking stations to satisfy the whims of the drivers.

There is a symphony of trains and trams for the hardworking masses. There is even an off-road network of bike paths for sporty types wanting to cycle or land ski to work.

Here’s an idea: driverless taxis and cars!

If they are ever perfected, driverless cars will continue through intersections from both directions in endless platoons. Private capsule transportation will become so efficient it won’t matter that all the streets need to be fenced—as they will need to be because cars will be coupled to cars front and back. Forget the days when they were spaced apart, or came in pulse waves and you were able to cross. Driverless cars will keep coming like the blades of a fan and do the same to your toes if you step in their path.

We won’t complain though about there being no way of crossing this train track—formerly known as the street—without venturing into underground tunnels or paying for a taxi to journey 6 meters. We won’t complain because the biggest problem with private capsule transportation, that it can’t be given to every person without causing jams, will have been solved. Capsule traffic will flow smoothly, even if everyone chooses it to go to the very same place at the same time. As though a nation of workers had suddenly turned into a nation of lords, no one will be walking in the mud and the rain. Everyone will be carried in the modern day equivalent of a sedan chair.

 

There is one glaring problem with the idea of lifting every person up in their own private capsule: the new high will become the new low. The artist Chris Burden takes us there with his installation Metropolis II. His vision makes you car sick just watching.

If the city of the future, as it is imagined by the manufacturers of driverless cars, ever did come to pass, we could find ourselves feeing like peasants in ways our ancestors could not have imagined, and when the novelty of driverless cars has subsided, find ourselves pining to be back on the sidewalk. At that point we will discover a lesson known to ancient designers of cities occupied only by nobles, cities like Hadrian’s Villa. The slaves there were hidden and there was no plebeian class. All patricians saw were other patricians. They could have had slaves carry them in covered sedan chairs—what the Romans called a lectica—saving their legs and their robes from the rain. However, the human desire to be free was much greater. So instead of capsules to protect them from rain, they built porticos. Then they lined them with marble. They celebrated pedestrian travel.

The only question is whether pedestrian travel is sufficient for a city of millions, not thousands like Hadrian’s Villa. It is, if you speed it up slightly, which is where bicycling comes to the fore. At just fifteen kilometers per hour, the speed a bike goes with no more effort than walking, cycling lets us cover areas twenty-five times greater than we can cover just walking. Areas up to 15km in diameter are manageable. Average trip distances in the following image, adjusted for zig zags and proximity biases, would be less than 7km in length.

Even if we adjust the size of that circle to account for Oslo’s hills, we’re still looking at a large sphere of influence within which conventional bicycles could be delivering average commute times of 30 minutes.

That’s not 30 minutes for the kind of sportive cyclist we see now in Oslo. We would be better to picture someone using one of the city’s share bikes, or a child, or better still someone cycling in absolute comfort. Imagine all the streets having glass porticos. Better still imagine they looked like Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan where I took this photo of somebody cycling:

Imagine the city being like a modern day airport. Some airports now have terminals over 2km in length. Take out the travelators that run down the middle and that stop people from crossing the street and let citizens use bicycles and scooters like the staff are allowed to in airports. What emerges is a picture of an all-weather city where trip times are fast and comfort is distributed freely to all. There are no cars, just a few carts, that fall in behind bicycle users. Trains to nearby cities like Drammen and Lillestrøm would be like airport shuttle rides to other terminals.

What I’ve done here, for the sake of discussion, is present polar opposite visions of Oslo a few decades from now. One vision puts people in capsules paying for comfort and speed with their credit cards. The other puts everyone on the street, paying for comfort and speed with their taxes. If both seem extreme, remember that both can be tempered. If we go down the path toward driverless cars we could still provide places for cycling. It just won’t be the main form of transport. Likewise, if we thought of the street as a luxurious palace that we would rather be a part of than be trapped in a car, there is no reason why the roofs of that palace couldn’t open, or stay opened, to the sunlight and the fresh air.

For the sake of discussion let’s look at what will be equal and different. Either model is going to cost billions. However, the bicycling model, because it’s low-tech, will cost a lot less to maintain. Both could be powered by renewable sources (hydro power and sustainable food), but the bicycle model will use far less energy overall. Both will provide fast travel times, though the bicycle model will require some mode changes with trains for those living outside of the main city.

The main difference is that sitting in cars will exacerbate our problems with chronic disease. The latest research shows that, unless we exercise with the intensity of jogging or cycling for forty minutes per day, the telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes start to shorten, shortening our lives by nine years. Interestingly, it was for the same reason that Hadrian had porticos built at his villa, their lengths precise mathematical factors of two Roman miles, the distance ancient doctors told people to walk after taking their lunch.

We are bombarded with news stories about technocrats’ views on the future of transport. There is one vital omission from the facts they present. None have actually asked people what they might want. There is little evidence people want to be cocooned. If they did, taxis would have more of the mode share in cities where drivers are cheaper than robots.

Why not just survey the people of Oslo? With a simple preference study, that could be undertaken by any university or research institution, we could know if the people of Oslo would rather be taxied by robots or given greater opportunities to use bikes.

Until we have been given evidence to the contrary we should assume that people want the pedestrianized spaces they flock to, and the traffic calmed streets we see filling with more bicycles year after year.

Hausmanns Gate, Oslo. Photo: Roar Løkken, Syklistene.

When asked to explain the upsurge in walking and cycling, technocrats mumble words like fit-bit, eBike and phone app. They’d be shattered to learn most people cycling and walking are doing so with no technological aids.

What we’re seeing in pedestrianized and bike friendly streets is an extension of a trend in our homes. We’ve been clearing our homes of apparatus, especially in kitchens. Juicers, electric can openers, bread makers and motorized knives have been disappearing, to be replaced only with chef’s knives, wooded blocks and simple time honoured devices.

So what should we get next for this only-child nephew named Oslo? More toys to trip over? Or would the city be better with a new way of thinking—new and yet ancient?

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