“We’re going to take care of the environment,” said Donald Trump on the radio this Monday 23 morning. I had a massive headache and heart palpitations. Was surprise at this statement from the new POTUS to blame? A premonition of Fillon‘s financial naughtiness to come? Or the noxious cloud shrouding the Eiffel Tower and rest of Paris?
It’s interesting to compare how cities reacted to their dirty air crisis this past week. Transport for London (TfL) issued advice but didn’t discount fares; Lille offered unlimited travel on its Transpole network for just €1.60 a day; Paris introduced an ‘anti-pollution’ ticket for €3.8 all zones, as well as enforcing (to what degree remains unclear) circulation différenciée – whereby certain vehicles are authorised on the roads while others are banned.
Unlike some, I’m not convinced offering public transport for nothing (upfront) when pollution spikes is a sustainable solution. Travelcard holders don’t benefit, but car drivers do. Systems are congested (if not already) and struggle to cope with the sudden influx of extra riders. And such initiatives cost an arm and a leg. Per day, the €3.8 ticket loses Paris transport authority the Stif revenue of around €500,000. Compare this to the whopping €4 million that went up in smog daily when it tried offering all services gratis. At the end of the day who pays for this free travel?
London’s Great Smog of 1952 was a real killer.
Idle no more
When it comes to reducing vehicle emissions and associated health risks, every little bit helps. Another story in the news this week, no doubt driven by the air issue, was the impact of vehicle idling in London boroughs.
Says behaviour change campaign Vehicle Idling Action: “We encourage drivers to switch their engines off by educating them about how air pollution affects health, so that they will give up their idling habit for good. When approached in a friendly way, and when presented with facts about how idling and air pollution affect health, most drivers switch off their engines and many pledge never to idle again.”
From January 23 to April 7, RATP, the Stif, and Ville de Paris are testing two autonomous shuttles along Pont Charles de Gaulle in the 12th district.
The EZ10 vehicles by Easymile can carry up to six passengers and are overseen by an on-board agent. They are running 7/7 from 2 to 8pm and rides are free. Fully electric, recharging takes place overnight.
“[We are] keen to offer innovative and sustainable urban mobility solutions adapted to each and every area,” said RATP president Elisabeth Borne. “Hence [we] want to be present across the whole travel chain, so as to encourage use of public transport. The autonomous vehicle trials are part of this thinking.”
The test phase will serve to gather user feedback – postitive, negative and suggestions – together with information on the performance of the shuttles, reliability, supervision, and operating safety RATP says it will then analyse the data in the months following.
Given the stress, clutter, multiple distractions and sheer unpredictability of city streets – pedestrians, traffic lights, road rage, urban furniture, buses, delivery vans, bin trucks, cyclists, motorcyclists… – I’m thinking these little buses would be better suited to ‘less volatile’ public spaces, at least initially, such as hospitals, old people’s homes, university campuses, factory plants, airports, and trade fair sites.
Take InnoTrans, for example. The Versailles of rail trade fests, its 41 exhibition halls, outdoor displays and track area in Berlin cover a vast surface area upwards of 80,000 square metres. Space that translates into a lot of walking time lost and blisters gained (at the 2016 edition, journalists were given plasters as part of their press pack). Imagine the bus shuttle service already provided being replaced or reinforced with a fleet of driverless wheels.
Note: at the same time I’m acutely aware of the employment issues raised by automation technology, as is already the case with closure of transport ticketing offices.
The safety aspects of the bus-minus-driver are still very much up in the air. As are insurance matters. But concerns aside, as demonstrated by trials and fledgling services up and running across Europe – Postbus in Switzerland, Keolis in Lyon, Transdev in Civaux, amongst others – this new mobility mode is very much on the agendas of transport authorities, operators, and, of course, vehicle constructors…
RATP is also working on an ‘intelligent garage’ concept for its Lagny bus centre in the 20th district of Paris. The aim is to optimise time and space in dense areas by enabling buses to park themselves automatically.
Hop on, hop off
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. On a lighter note, in this fast-paced world it’s reassuring to know some things in transport are here to stay. On Friday I was glad to see cheeky Serge the rabbit is still aboard the Paris metro and RER (commuter train) networks. Introduced in 1977 to warn passengers about trapping hands and other body parts in train doors, this Gallic take on Bugs Bunny now has a Twitter account.
This week’s picks
‘Are trains socialist? Why Britain has no transport policy’ Christian Wolmar
Cover illustration by Troy Terpstra, May 18, 2009