I’ve been having a recurring dream. I dreamt it again last night, so maybe writing it down will make a difference?
At first, in this dream I don’t realise that I’ve slipped into a parallel universe. My surroundings look entirely familiar, until I step outside. It is a beautiful spring morning, warm sunshine, a gentle breeze, birdsong on the air, and unusually peaceful for a weekday. Then I notice that ‘my’ street has changed. The road pavement is narrower and most of the houses have lost their driveways. Carports and garages are missing. The street trees are bigger and there are more of them. Where driveways had been there are footpaths and gardens. Garden plots overflowing with food crops transform the streetscape. In the distance I see some neighbours out tending their gardens, or talking. Youngsters are playing a ball game on the road. On the road! Then the realisation hits me; no cars! Where are all the cars?
In my street, at least the one that was familiar until that morning, there were always cars parked, coming or going, zooming past the intersection at the bottom of the hill. Now there were none to be seen – or heard. As I was contemplating this, a vehicle turned the corner and proceeded toward me. It was reassuring at first, the familiarity of a vehicle on the road, after all, that is what roads are for, isn’t it? Then I noticed that the approaching vehicle was unlike any car I was used to. For starters it was very small, had only three wheels and was running silently. As it approached I could see that it was a two seater, quite aerodynamic looking, and light in weight. It carried registration plates, headlights, indicators; windscreen wipers, all the usual ‘car’ stuff, but it was so small!
“Good morning,” the driver said as she pulled up in front of my house, “how are you this morning?”
“Fine, I think,” I replied hesitantly.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “you’re in an alternate reality, but only for a short time. Jump in and I’ll show you around if you like?”
“Sure.” What else was I going to say?
The two-seater was a bit like a bubble helicopter cockpit on wheels with windscreen and roof, but open on the sides. Seating was side by side and there were pedals just like a recumbent bicycle. As we set off it surprised me that very little pedal effort was required. I guessed that there must be an electric motor somewhere in the drive train. The ‘pilot’ who was also my guide and ‘contact’ in this universe, operated the directional controls with a joystick, just like a light aircraft.
“Pedalling is optional,” she explained, “It helps extend our range by reducing the demand on the batteries.”
As we reached the end of my street and turned onto the main road I started to see a few more vehicles similar to the one I was riding in. There were also bicycles that looked quite familiar and some that looked very novel in their configurations, sporting carrier boxes and various accessories for transporting goods, even children. There were no ‘cars’ of the four-wheel combustion-engine variety that I was used to, and only a few goods delivery vehicles, vans and utilities.
“Where are all the cars?” I asked
“Do you mean the thousand-plus kilogram fossil fuelled antiquities commonly used in your universe?”
“Well, yes. I mean, you know, ‘cars’ as made popular by Henry Ford.”
“We’ve moved on from those. They became largely irrelevant in towns after the speed limit legislation was passed.”
“Oh. What is this speed limit legislation?”
My contact explained that ten years ago, after a decade of forewarning, the national urban speed limit was set at 30 kilometres per hour. The car industry responded with a plethora of personal transport options designed for purely urban use. After the maximum urban speed limit changed to 30, the need to engineer for higher speeds no longer constrained vehicle designers. Vehicles were made much lighter enabling a range of alternative energy sources. Sales of conventional two wheel bikes skyrocketed. Roads became safer for all users.
Cars, as they were before, were not outlawed or banned, merely limited to 30 km/h. She reminded me that 30 km/h is slightly higher than the median traffic speed in most urban areas in my universe too, so journey times were not greatly affected, particularly during peak hours. People soon realised they didn’t need a big, heavy car to get around safely in towns and cities any more. New design options came onto the market and before long people traded in their old ‘Sports Utility Vehicles’ for newer fuel-efficient ‘Townies’. The manufacturers and dealers also responded with an innovative paradigm shift in their customer relationships whereby they leased ‘personal mobility services’ more often than simply selling or leasing particular vehicles.
“How did that happen?” I asked
“The car industry realised that most of their customers were really more interested in convenient transport than owning a car per se.”
“Once they figured that out, and with Urban Speed 30 about to be implemented, they offered customers the option of a personal mobility lease. It was a smart move because we all knew that once 30 became law we’d be re-thinking our options. Rather than put off a decision on replacing or upgrading a vehicle it became a popular option to enter into a mobility lease, which gave you access to private transport without locking you in to a particular vehicle.”
“How does a mobility lease work?”
“Quite simply really. You decide on the dealer or manufacturer that has the vehicle options that appeal to you, shopping around for the best deal just like you were buying a car, but instead of picking an individual machine, you pick a package that best meets your needs. Take this Twike for example. It suits my needs most of the time, but occasionally I need something bigger for visiting friends in the country, or load carrying capacity for extra passengers and moving stuff. My mobility lease covers the cost of the Twike, which is my base monthly payment, but when I need something bigger, or the Twike needs maintenance, I simply collect another vehicle from the dealer and maybe pay a small premium to cover the added costs if it is a bigger or more complex unit. Since I am leasing mobility services, my service provider offers flexible options that meet my various needs and I only pay for what I use.”
“What a great idea.”
“It makes a lot of sense now that we have Urban Speed 30. And it costs me much less than it did to when I owned a big car that most of the time I was the only occupant of anyway.”
“For a start my base lease cost is geared to the smallest vehicle I can get away with for my daily needs rather than the biggest car I can afford that covers all the possible uses I might have for it. Since I can upgrade, or cross-grade, at any time into a specialist vehicle, I don’t have to worry about being disadvantaged by downsizing in the first place. Then there is the running cost advantage of this form of human-electric hybrid drive. Charged by renewable energy and augmented by pedal-power it costs very little to run and maintain, particularly with these new bio-batteries.”
“I suppose the lower speed limit makes the roads a bit safer too?”
“Absolutely! Not only have we achieved a 98% reduction in urban road fatalities since the change, as you can see the road is far less intimidating, road-rage is a thing of the past and the consequences of collisions are far less drastic.”
“I’ve noticed a few young people driving?”
“Yes, that was another consequence of the 30 limit, we created a Townie license category with a minimum driver age of twelve.”
“Wow! Did that cause chaos?”
“Actually no. As you can see there are a few younger teenagers on the road now, but also a lot more regularly use basic bicycles too, since they can keep up with the traffic more easily, and because these Townies are often not enclosed, it is easy to make eye-contact, even talk to other road users.”
“I’m guessing personal fitness levels are improving too?”
“That’s right. Active transport options give us exercise as well as getting us around. Now that the traffic is calmer, people are more relaxed about getting on a bike and letting their children ride around. The days of ‘mum’s taxi’ are over.”
“I am amazed at how quiet the streets are.”
We had been travelling around for half an hour or so by then. The weird thing about parallel universe #1 is that at one level it looks so familiar, the topography, the buildings, the people, but on many others it is very different. The design of the streets is a good example. It was the first thing that struck me as I stepped out my front door a short while ago – the roads are narrower and there is much more planting in the verge. Now that I know about Urban Speed 30 it all falls into place. The majority of vehicles on these roads are small and light, so they don’t need as much space to manoeuvre safely. Reduced mass and velocity means shorter stopping distances and driver reaction times are less critical for collision avoidance since there is more time to sense and respond to others around us. Without large speed differentials, the incidence of conflicts is significantly reduced. The fact that these vehicles are also more varied and typically more open in their design means it is easier to read the ‘body language’ of other road users and respond appropriately. It is weird at first, but being able to say hello as you pass by is actually quite a nice way to get around too. It makes the road feel more like a community of users than a pack of competitors.
“What were some of the other spin-offs of the change to 30?” I asked.
“The economic modelling was initially controversial. When first mooted there was a great hue and cry about the change and if not for bi-partisan action by the politicians of the day, I doubt we would have been able to achieve it at all.”
“What, both sides of politics worked together?”
“Yes. It was hard to believe at first, but full credit to them for having the guts to follow through.”
“What precipitated the idea?”
“That’s a good question. Nobody can say for sure. Some speculate that parliament was sucked through space-time into your universe fifty years in the future where they saw the horrendous outcomes of a particular set of decisions. I suspect we’ll never really know what the catalyst was. The premise was pretty simple to understand though. We were going along building bigger faster cars, more roads, tunnels, car parks and the entire infrastructure that goes with the private car, when we realised that people were more important. Instead of cars serving us, we had become slaves to them. Somehow we’d bought the illusion that there would be new technologies discovered to replace fossil fuel and life could go on in the fast lane, bigger faster further. Maybe the insanity of that delusion finally dawned on us all? Who really wanted a fast-lane future anyway?”
“I know what you mean. In my universe we’re all time-poor, always rushing to the ‘next’ thing, seldom happy in the moment. Everything, especially gratification, has to be instant.”
“Yes, we were much the same, focused on the destination rather than the journey, not realising that the destinations we’d chosen would be meaningless unless the journey also had some greater purpose.”
“We’re a long time dead aren’t we?”
“Oh yeah. Maybe that was the tipping point? The realisation that no one was feeling any better on the path we were on. In fact the more we strived in that model the worse things became, so it was time for a change in the model. When people first heard about the Urban Speed 30 bill it came as a shock. We collectively went into denial, refusing to believe that such a radical infringement of our ‘rights’ would ever get up. That soon boiled over into anger and outrage that these ‘lunatics’ in parliament were threatening our ‘way of life’. When the implications of the bipartisan stance of the politicians dawned on us and we accepted that this thing might actually happen, the bargaining started. Big business began public posturing and chest beating, but not all of it was negative. Some saw the potential for new business opportunities. That’s the thing about change, there are some who claim to be ‘losers’ and some will see themselves as ‘winners’. In fact there would be few genuine losers, but we refused to accept that and slipped into a collective state of depression about an uncertain future.”
“Wait a minute. Isn’t the future by definition uncertain?”
“Of course it is, but we instinctively seek comfort in the familiar and fear change. Change can be threatening, particularly as we struggle to envision all the implications. We are naturally suspicious of the motives of the ‘changers’, particularly when we pretend we didn’t ask for a change in the first place.”
“How did the depression phase end?”
“It took a while. The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones – we always move on. The task force charged with designing and implementing the transition at least had the farsighted political mandate for a decade of preparation. That allowed the transport industry enough time to get onto the front foot with things like the mobility lease.”
“What about those in non-urban areas, rural and remote communities?”
“Yes, they were especially aggrieved at first until they realised that for them very little needed to change, since outside towns the speed limit would be up to 110. You need a more robust and faster vehicle with greater carrying capacity when you live in the country. When they come to town they have a couple of options; slow down and self-limit to 30, use public transport, or if they’re going to be in town for a while, swap the touring car for a Townie at the local mobility dealer.”
“OK, what about the aged and people with a disability?”
“Actually they were better off too. For starters, just as the minimum driving age was reduced in recognition of the safety benefits of 30, so too the elderly found the roads less intimidating due to the more social nature of transport in these Townies. Independent mobility for the elderly was enhanced. The same was true of people with a disability that may have prevented them from driving under the old rules. Lower road speed and superior variety of vehicle options allowed greater independence for a substantial number of people who had previously been denied access to the streets unassisted. There are still elderly and disabled people who are not fully independent, but the notion of a mobility lease means that they have greater options for personal transport as their needs change. Also, the streets are so much more pedestrian friendly as you can see; it is safer for all of us out here.”
“I think I can see how that works. Amazing when you start to look into it, how such a relatively simple thing as a speed limit could make so much difference.”
“We’ve only scratched the surface of the benefits that changing the urban speed limit has made.”
“What are some of the other benefits?”
“Over the past twenty years we have accelerated the retrofitting of our urban areas to become complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to daily life within easy walking distance of each other and transit stops.”
“I suppose the outer suburbs that were so car-dependent were more difficult to adapt than the inner urban areas?”
“Yes they were. Our urban sprawl was more of an urban splatter of disjointed and isolated land developments devoid of local shops, services and schools. Residents attracted by lower real estate prices in these outer suburbs became slaves to horrendous daily ‘commutes’ to work and locked in to car-trips for everything from a loaf of bread to a gymnasium visit. How bizarre, looking back on it, that people would drive to a gym to work out on a machine that had no other purpose than to compensate for a sedentary car-based lifestyle?”
“Crazy isn’t it. Are the gyms still as popular?”
“Not as much, since most of as live far more active lifestyles now, partly due to hybrid drive Townies like this but mainly due to the walkable communities we’ve adapted into as a direct result of lowering the speed limit. There has been a development boom retrofitting communities to have a centre focus combining commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses with an ample supply of open space like squares, greens and parks. These public open spaces are well used because of location and design that attracts the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night”.
“Any other economic changes?”
“Absolutely! We stopped demanding ‘growth’ and asked ourselves what we wanted to grow.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You know how it is in your universe; growth is everything, or so they say. If there is no growth, how can you generate wealth, or revenue to continue running the economy? Without ‘growth’ we’re stagnant, or in recession, which is bad, right?”
“Well, yes, obviously. How do we pay for essential services without growth?”
“Consider this; we build a new freeway to relieve congestion on the roads, which reduces the travel time to the outer suburbs where land costs less, so people move out there to live, but there are few employment or recreational opportunities out there, so they use that freeway to get to work and to socialise. Before long, you know it, the freeway is congested, so to cater for that ‘growth’ we build another couple of lanes on the freeway, which reduces the travel times again, so people who may have been put off by the earlier congestion feel more inclined to move out to a bigger or more ‘affordable’ house in the outer suburbs, and again, find themselves needing to travel down that freeway for work and pleasure. Hey presto! Back to square one. No city has ever, or will ever, solve congestion by building more roads, or bridges, or tunnels. As soon as we build them, the traffic increases to use up the new capacity.”
“What does that have to do with growth?”
“Don’t you see, that form of growth is a self-perpetuating spiral dive into a developmental cul-de-sac?”
“Yes, you’re right. So what have you done that is different?”
“Urban Speed 30 disestablished our car-dependence leaving most of us better off to the tune of about $220 per week, which is the median difference in total cost of ownership of a private car and a mobility lease. That money was then free to be applied to obtaining a place to live closer to work, which due to the concurrent adaptation of our suburbs, was also closer to services and recreation needs as well.”
“Explain to me where the $220 comes from.”
“That is an average amount. It is based on the difference between what we used to pay for our cars in finance interest, registration, maintenance, fuel, insurance, repairs and depreciation. Those are the direct costs. There are also indirect costs borne by the community that are more difficult to measure; things like road trauma costs, infrastructure construction and maintenance, air, water and noise pollution, social dysfunction and so on. The $220 doesn’t include those things; it is based on direct individual costs alone. The total cost of ownership of an average car was about $280 per week. The mobility lease for this Twike costs me $55 per week, with recharging and occasional upgrades rounding out to $60 on average per week over the year.”
“Why is it so much cheaper?”
“Lets break it down; a mobility lease is based on acquisition of services rather than goods – personal mobility services. There is no consumer loan, therefore any capital or interest to repay. The lease price includes manufacturer finance costs, which are typically funded at a much more attractive interest rate than a consumer car loan. So, lower interest costs are involved. Then there are the registration charges, which are substantially lower. That was part of the political sweetener attached to the changeover. Registration charges are made up of road-use taxes and compulsory third party insurance costs. We’ve already talked about the 98% drop in urban road fatalities and similar reduction in collision damage, so the government of the day was able to convince the insurance loss adjusters that a lower premium structure should apply. This was a double whammy of a good sort, because registration and insurance costs both came down. The government had to face the same logic as the insurance loss adjusters – these Townies simply do less damage to things, including roads, so the road tax ought to be lower.”
“I’m guessing your fuel bill is smaller too?”
“Yes indeed. This Twike runs off renewable energy in the form of electricity and muscle power. If needs be it can be 100% pedal power, which some people choose to do. Keeps you warm in winter! In warmer weather, or when I don’t want to arrive all hot and sweaty, I use the batteries to help me along. The whole drive system is computer controlled with regenerative braking and advanced energy management. My ‘fuel’ bill has come down from $80 per week to $80 per year.”
“Maintenance, repairs and depreciation are not the same order of overhead either.”
“Why is that?”
“Not having an internal combustion engine is the biggest saving. Old style cars require substantial drive-train maintenance. These Townies are so much lighter because they don’t need all the safety engineering, therefore the energy required to drive them is far less.”
“That must be a benefit for low income earners too?”
“Yes, transport has become a lot more equitable, financially and in terms of space allocation.”
“I’m still wondering about the safety of these things if there are big cars, buses and trucks sharing the same roads. What happens if a bus hits you in one of these? Force equals mass times acceleration – basic law of physics, same as in my universe right?”
“Yes that is true, but you’ve partly answered your own question. The heavy vehicles are town limited to 30 as well. Remember what I was saying earlier about lower speeds allowing more reaction time and fewer issues with differential speed conflicts. You just don’t get another vehicle blasting past you at double your road speed any more.”
“Surely people still speed occasionally?”
“Unfortunately yes, you’re right. In the early days it was more of a problem because there were still a lot of cars on the road with 100 kW or greater engine power. Over time though as more and more people switched into mobility leases and Townies like this, with a 3 kW electric motor and a design top speed of maybe 35 km/h, the problem diminished. There are also substantial penalties for exceeding 30 in an urban area, including vehicle confiscation.”
“What sort of range do you get out of the batteries in this thing?”
“On a full charge at moderate load I can do about 120 kilometres, but by contributing some pedalling that can be extended quite a lot.”
“The embodied energy would be quite a lot less too I suppose?”
“Correct. The embodied energy in a typical Townie is about 10% of that required for an old style car. They cost the manufacturers and the environment much less to build, and they have a longer chassis service life, which is good for the mobility lease business model where the manufacturer never sells the asset. They can easily be re-fitted and returned to the lease-pool time after time. The tyres and brakes last longer, collision damage is unlikely to result in a write-off, and the body panels and interior fittings are all totally recyclable.”
“OK, that’s all great, but what if I want to go to the coast for the weekend with a few friends? These things only seat two and cruise at 30 but the coast is over 60 kilometres away.”
“Townies are not permitted on high-speed roads or outside urban limits. You need to think outside the square. Most of the time we do trips of less than 15 kilometres and a substantial number of those are less than 5 kilometres. For such trips a bike or a Townie is a much better proposition. For longer journeys we have alternatives. If you’re in a mobility lease like I am, you’d meet your mates at the local railway station, getting there is now an easy journey of only a few minutes, and catch the train to the coast. The train does 120 km/h between stations and will get you there in about 40 minutes. At the other end, because you have a mobility lease relationship, you collect a pre-arranged multi-seat Townie at the station to get you around at the coast. Drop it off at the station on the return journey. Simple.”
“I think I’m starting to get the picture. It’s a bit like a car-share scheme only you pool through the dealer network.”
“That is one way of looking at it. For me it just makes better sense. I don’t own a car, but have more transport choices with no less convenience. The best part is that I can now afford to live in an inner city peaceful and friendly neighbourhood.”
“Don’t overlook the improvements in public transport we made also. There are better bus services, trains, ferries and even some light rail.”
After a few hours travelling and sight seeing it starts to dawn on me that each urban community, or cluster of communities, has well-defined edges such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, which my contact tells me is permanently protected from development.
Local roads are more like pedestrian paths and bike paths, which contribute to a system of fully connected and interesting routes to attractive destinations. Streets are reconfigured to enable pedestrian and bicycle use. They are comparatively small and spatially well defined by buildings, trees and lighting, all so much easier to achieve after high-speed traffic was eliminated. This is in contrast to the hostile car-prioritised thoroughfares I am used to back in my universe.
“What about long distance road transport?” I ask.
“There have been some changes in that sector too. Most of our goods spend at least part of their journey on a truck of some description. What has tended to happen is that freight rail infrastructure received some of the capital investment freed up from urban roads post-30. As the rail network infrastructure improved the unit cost of goods moved began to come down and profitability returned. Trucks became less competitive for long distance haulage and so were diverted to shorter distribution networks radiating from rail freight nodes.”
“I’ve noticed a lot more local food production. Just about every home has a vege garden.”
“Yes. There are a number of factors in play here. At the time of the transition to 30 the community was becoming quite concerned about where their food came from. There was talk of ‘food-miles’ and a general increase in awareness about the consequences of our choices as consumers. When a popular television show hosted by a celebrity gardener ran a series of driveway conversion episodes the notion really took off. You see, people were switching over to mobility leases in huge numbers by then and the Townies take up so much less space in our gardens, so driveways and carports made way for vegetable plots and productive gardens.”
“Smart thinking.” I started to tally up the implications of that on a town. When you stop and think about it there is a substantial amount of urban land dedicated to cars and their keeping.
“At the same time there was a big increase in telecommuting and flexible employment options, so people decided to convert their garages to home offices and home based businesses.”
“Replacing the big old cars freed up space for lots of other uses then?”
“Yes it did. It also made infill development less controversial because traffic congestion was no longer the automatic consequence of building a new residential unit. The demand for affordable homes close to centres has always been strong and it has not abated. We’ve been working hard to pedestrianise our communities and that became a whole lot easier after the transition to 30 in our streets.”
“So, what I am hearing is that the economic consequences of urban speed 30 have been more positive than negative?”
“Oh for certain they have. Right across the economy.”
“And what about social consequences?”
“As you can see, the streets are places for people now. We spend less of our time cocooned in two tonnes of steel and glass and more out in the fresh air, which is even fresher due to the switch from fossil fuels. We live work and play in walkable neighbourhoods where young and old have greater freedom of movement and access to the things they need or want. We’re more self-sufficient and self-reliant with our garden plots and home occupations. We know our neighbours better and identify strongly with our community, plus we have superior access to parks and open space.”
“Tell me more about the environmental benefits?”
“As you can see for yourself the extra plant life in every street is an obvious benefit right under our noses. On a larger scale we’ve put an end to urban sprawl, which really died a natural death when nobody wanted a car-dependent lifestyle anymore. That has led to urban consolidation, which is not merely increased density, it is also a finer grained urban environment where you can meet just about every need within ten minutes walk from your front door, and you can age in place, if that is what you want to do. The fundamental energy-efficiency of this way of life has taken tremendous pressure off the natural environment. Our green-belts provide contiguous wildlife corridors and habitat as well as providing ‘environmental services’ like fresh air and clean water.”
“Are you completely weened off fossil fuels?”
“No, not yet. We’ve cut our consumption substantially in the private transport sector thanks to Townies. Road based transport fuel consumption is down about 40% due to the mode-shift to rail for long distance freight. Agricultural uses are still pretty high. It will take decades to get oil off the farms, but we’re trending in the right direction.”
“Why is it so hard to get oil off the farms?”
“Well it’s not just tractors and harvesters that use fossil fuels. The entire agrichemical industry is based on oil and gas. We use it to make fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, without which we could not get the production efficiencies necessary to feed the population.”
“What about all these urban garden plots I’ve seen?”
“They’re only row-crops; fruit and veges – kitchen gardens. We need grains, meat and other animal products too. You can’t produce those in an urban setting quite so easily. They need more space and many aren’t good to be up close and personal with.”
“How about organic farming?”
“We’re moving closer all the time. Consumer preferences for local food are slowly bringing about changes. Industrial scale agriculture had become quite a monster really. It was a bit like cars had become – servant turned master. Farms run by farmers with strong connections to the land are far more compatible with community scale economies. Consumer awareness of ‘food miles,’ stronger appreciation of seasonality constraints and preferences for fewer chemicals has changed production patterns too.”
By then we were back in my street. I’d had a quick tour through a small part of a parallel universe that was as different from my own as it was the same. When I boil it down, the simple shift of an urban speed limit to 30 km/h, of itself a seemingly insignificant change precipitated an astonishing array of differences – most of them positive as far as I could see.
Since spending that short time in a parallel universe I have started to question myself about technologies – are they my servant or master? Do I want them because they are useful to me, or just because they’re there? Has technology per se ever made me truly happy? Well, possibly yes – I admire a thing that is well designed and well made, but unless I really need it, I mean really need it, of what use can it be to me? Maybe it is my age, but given the choice between a faster car and a slower life, I’d not have to think about it for long.
Afterward: this is a piece of creative writing – I made it up, just to be clear, but much of it is based on real possibilities. In particular the Twike is real. Though not legally useable on our streets under current Australian law, it was partly the inspiration for this piece.
You can find out more about Twikes, if you’re interested at http://www.twike.com/
See also the following posts for updates: