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How London’s heatwave makes us consider the future of mobility

Then and now – has London mobility improved?

London’s heatwave has once again highlighted a major issue with the Tube – it’s too hot. Designed by the Victorians for a city with 5 million fewer inhabitants, the soil around the tunnels can no longer absorb heat as well, causing the Central Line to reach over 35 degrees last week. On the older and deeper lines of the network TFL has been unable to find a solution.

This is quite a bleak picture but it gives a vivid example of why there is so much interest in new ways of getting around the city. The year 2009 doesn’t seem so long ago, but in a world before 4G networks existed the options for travelling in London were much more limited. You could take the train (although you couldn’t get the Overground to Shoreditch yet!), get a bus, a cab or ride your own bike. Santander bikes, or previously known as ‘Boris bikes’, were only introduced in 2010, Uber wasn’t due for three more years and Drive Now wouldn’t become London’s first dockless car sharing service until 2014, letting people pick up and leave a car in different locations.

What’s all this about sustainability?

More recently the public consciousness has become more focused on sustainability giving rise to a new generation of mobility solutions. Obike was the first dockless bike sharing scheme, launching just two years ago, and last year saw Lime become the first dockless e-bike sharing scheme. Both promote active travel, a key goal for the government, as well as filling in some of the difficult journeys in central London (getting from Soho to Marylebone is surprisingly difficult if you don’t want to walk!) Both have been joined by many competitors, some of which have already fallen by the wayside. Both Drive Now, part of SHARENOW and Zipcar have introduced electric cars onto London’s streets, providing an emission-free way for Londoners to get around for short journeys where the train or a bike just won’t do.

The explosion of new mobility services tackle some serious issues, such as improving air quality and encouraging people to be more active, but for me one of the big reasons we have seen such enthusiastic uptake of these new solutions is that they are really fun. Being able to jump into a convertible Mini when the sun is out, or cruising across London on an e-bike are excellent and make the journey something more than just getting from A to B.

Where do we go from here?

The rapid pace of change in technology (in 2009 the iPhone 3GS launched in June!) has left our street infrastructure and government legislation lagging behind. Electric scooters are illegal to ride in the UK anywhere apart from on private land, yet a lightweight electric vehicle to cover ‘last-mile’ journeys is something that many people are willing to flout the law for. As more electric cars become available to buy or hire, London will need considerably more charging points than exist today and while e-bikes usage is rising rapidly, London’s streets are still perceived as too dangerous to cycle on for thousands of potential riders. We are also starting to see self-driving cars being tested on public roads, giving a glimpse of the kind of sci-fi future that until recently only existed in films.

In conclusion…

A careful balancing act is needed now to ensure that as new solutions are introduced public safety isn’t put at risk. The potential to drastically improve the urban environment is obvious, however, a lack of regulation can lead to sometimes fatal consequences, while too much regulation on the other hand could stifle more innovation and progress which is desperately needed. The Government and service providers need to ensure they are able to communicate clearly and that they are working toward common goals over the coming years to secure a future where consumers have freedom of choice when it comes to mobility (where they can avoid the Central Line when it gets too hot!)