Mobility

XC90 presents… the city of tomorrow

What does the future of urban mobility look like? We speak to two leading pioneers in Boston about the sustainable transport solutions of the future, from 3D-printed, autonomous boats to ‘flying’ solar-powered pods.

WORDS: STEPHEN WORTHY | PHOTOS: ANDREW SHAYLOR

The Volvo XC90 explores Boston’s city streets.

The city has seduced humans for millennia. At first, they grew up around physical attributes – a river, harbour, defensive location or proximity to a resource, like a coal seam or iron ore deposits. But urban development soon became less organic and more regulated. In the mid-19th century, Georges-Eugène Hausmann famously redesigned central Paris, introducing wide boulevards and parks, although it was the invention of the motor car that would have the most lasting effect on the structure of today’s cities, ancient and modern.

And yet the next 50 years, say experts, could see the most radical reinvention of our cities. A reinvention fuelled, for the most part, by the rapidly changing nature of personal mobility, from the adoption of electrification to autonomous cars and our journey towards carbon-neutral living.

If there’s one place, in particular, where mobility in the city of the future is being reimagined with real vigour then it’s Boston – high-tech hub and home to several of the world’s most prestigious, forward-thinking academic institutions. Here, the work of people like Professor Carlo Ratti – architect and engineer, co-founder of design practice CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and head of the Senseable City Lab program at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – and Mike Stanley, CEO and founder of personal public transit system, Transit X, could change how we interact with the city of tomorrow.

Autonomous water taxis
Developments in self-driving technology and 3D printing are going to have a far-reaching effect on how we navigate our cities – and not just on land – says Professor Carlo. He and his colleagues at the Senseable City Lab have collaborated with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions on a research project called Roboat. With their open-source design, these driverless, rectangular-hulled boats are intended to be mass produced using a 3D printer.

Prototypes, which use a combination of sensors and cameras to plot their way around, are currently being tested on Amsterdam’s waterways. They can be used as personal transport, for deliveries, to collect waste and obtain environmental data. They can even become an architectural structure, connecting up to provide a temporary bridge or floating stage.

‘Flying’ personal pods
Mike Stanley, a graduate of MIT, is founder of Transit X. This solar-powered, personal mass transit system uses a network of elevated, ultra-thin rails on which ‘flying pods’ move people around a city, usually along existing roads. A number of pilot schemes are in the pipeline, including several in the US and one in Kigali, the Rwandan capital that’s building a reputation for its pioneering environmental and sustainability programmes. The pods, which carry up to four people and can travel at speeds of 72km/h, whizz around on rails above your head, about the same height as most urban bridges.

“Each podway has the equivalent capacity of a 15-lane highway,” explains Mike. “That’s very high capacity. If the average commute is 30 minutes, you should be able to get that down to five or 10 minutes. That would be like getting a couple of weeks of extra vacation time per year.”

More parks, fewer car parks
The MIT Senseable City Lab is also in the middle of a study, called Unparking, into the long-term effects of autonomous vehicles on urban mobility, based on research they’re undertaking in Singapore. It’s estimated that our cars currently sit idle 95 per cent of the time and usually take up at least two parking spots (at home and at work). But because autonomous cars will work harder, says Carlo, parking provisions will be greatly reduced.

“Rather than sitting idle in a parking spot all day, autonomous vehicles could bring you to work in the morning and then assist someone else in your family, neighbourhood, social community, or city,” he says. This allows cities to open themselves up to more green space, potentially blurring the lines between it and the suburban environment.

Civilising the city
The huge potential for creating more green space aside, how will the city of the future look? “In its physical appearance, it’s not going to change that much,” Carlo predicts. “As humans, we still need horizontal floors for living, façades to protect us from the outside, windows to look out of. What will change is the way we will move around it – shopping, meeting, eating.

“Cities have a lot of attractiveness because they’re places where you can exchange ideas, goods, etc. Why don’t we all live in a giant city?” asks Carlo. “You could fit all of the world’s population on the island of Cuba, with the density of Manhattan more or less, and then we can keep everything else [on the planet] like a giant Central Park. So, why aren’t we doing that? Well, while the attraction of a city is based on its civilising power, for some there’s also a repulsion force, because everything becomes more expensive, congested with people and so on.”

With the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicting that over two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050 (the current figure is a little over half) the pull of the city – and its ability to adapt, mutate and improve – shows no sign of diminishing.

The new Volvo XC90 is available as an electrified mild hybrid powertrain as well as the T8 Twin Engine with plug-in hybrid technology. This is our idea of modern, sustainable Swedish luxury.