U.K. City Is Designing a Future of Fewer Cars — By Focusing on Its Roads

Densifying Milton Keynes thinks autonomous pods, not trains, are the answer.

Story by Feargus O’Sullivan

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Driverless cars are the future of urban transport, not trams or monorails. That, at least, is the official view coming from the British city of Milton Keynes. A town of just over 250,000 residents founded in 1967, Milton Keynes is currently the host city for a set of driverless car trials funded indirectly by the U.K. government — the most ambitious testing yet staged in the world.

If all goes as planned, by 2018, Milton Keynes’ downtown will be served by an on-demand, publicly run system of 30 to 40 driverless two-seater pod cars, which will allow residents to travel between any two points in the city’s downtown without navigating or reacting to obstacles themselves. Beyond the city center, the trials will also test the viability of semi-autonomous connected cars for private use, a fast-developing technology that at present still requires a driver to be present in case of emergencies. These trials, announced in early 2015, are striking in their own right but also came simultaneously with another significant announcement. In March, Milton Keynes Council rejected the idea of building a tram or monorail line, citing high costs, disruption and potential inefficiency. For now at least, Milton Keynes believes that when it comes to exploring the future of greener, safer transport, vehicles for individuals are a better bet than pumping money into mass transit.

North American cities would do well to watch these trials closely. England’s exurban Southeast might seem far from Middle America, but in layout and conception Milton Keynes is arguably the most American of Europe’s cities. Less than 50 years old, it’s a spread-out, strictly zoned, car-dominated settlement that has at times been (rather fancifully) damned as an “Anglo Saxon Los Angeles.” Made up mainly of single-family homes built across a loose grid system, connected by modest, tree-lined highways and centered upon a large shopping mall, Milton Keynes cleaves unusually closely for a British city to late-20th century North American suburban planning ideals. And when it comes to creating greener, cleaner transit, Milton Keynes’ infrastructure and layout — its very character — make it a potentially more relevant example for American transit planners (at least outside North America’s densest metropolises) than anywhere else on the European continent.

Milton Keynes is modeled after a California suburb. (Credit: City of Milton Keynes)

“We’re not built the same way as other U.K. cities that have tram systems,” says Brian Matthews, Milton Keynes’ head of transport innovation. “At the moment, we can’t see a requirement for a tram or monorail system simply because we don’t have the densities or masses of people to move on a fixed track, which would be quite expensive without serving many of our residents. It would leave significant gaps unless we had an extremely comprehensive network whose cost could run into many billions of pounds.”

Tram or no tram, Matthews still knows he’s faced with some serious challenges. Milton Keynes is booming. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in Britain, and its current layout and transit isn’t ideally suited to coping.

“In the next 10 to 20 years we’ll grow from being a medium-sized place into being one of the top 10 largest cities in the U.K. In the city center alone we have 25,000 parking bays — that’s a tremendous amount of land, especially as we are expecting 40 percent growth in the area,” Matthews says. “Our travel demand is going to go up by about 60 percent in the next two decades, and we simply can’t increase capacity by that amount.”

With this larger-than-life challenge as the backdrop, Milton Keynes has decided its solution can be found in an old maxim, small is beautiful. The city is experimenting with vehicles that, at their largest, will hold the same number of passengers as a conventional car. To do this, they’ve teamed up with a public-private partnership that goes by the improbable name of Transport Systems Catapult. Based in Milton Keynes, the organization is one of seven “Catapult Centers” established by government since 2010 with the goal of boosting U.K. tech innovation by forging links among companies, academic researchers and government. While the results of these Catapult collaborations often involve greener solutions, their primary aim is to boost the economy by encouraging domestic innovation and manufacturing.

In the transport sector, this has meant the creation of a driverless, completely autonomous pod vehicle: the Lutz Pathfinder. Created by RDM Group in collaboration with Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group and Transport Systems Catapult, the snug, two-person vehicle uses 19 laser sensors and cameras to monitor its surroundings and navigate the road without a human in the driver’s seat. The pod navigates using a lightning-fast processor that compares the information gathered by its sensors and cameras to data already stored about the area, enabling it to recognize both its whereabouts and any potential obstacles, and drive accordingly. The video below shows a prototype Pathfinder pod on the streets of Milton Keynes. Moving slightly faster than walking pace — roughly at the speed of, say, one of the Dalek robots that stalked Doctor Who in the eponymous British television serial — the pod is able to mingle safely with pedestrians. Sometime within the next two years, this fantastical scene will become a reality when 40 slightly altered versions of the Lutz roll out in Milton Keynes’ downtown.

For a city center like Milton Keynes’, the Lutz’s ability to navigate safely among pedestrians is especially valuable. While parking lots form a ring around the district, there are long distances that shoppers must traverse on foot. For those with difficulty walking, getting around isn’t easy and in a city that anticipates its significant population growth to include young families as well as aging boomers, that is not a good thing. “We feel there’s a mobility issue within our city center,” Matthews says. “Our pods aren’t a mass transit solution. They will provide a door-to-door mobility service, to address a lot of low-demand journeys by providing personalized rapid transit systems.”

A plaza in Milton Keynes’ commercial center. Soon, driverless cars will shuttle residents around the area. (Credit: City of Milton Keynes)

The pod system is only one part of Milton Keynes’ plans, however. Outside its compact center, connected passenger cars will also be rolled out for testing.

Currently in development, with on-road tryouts to begin next year, these cars will resemble standard vehicles already on the road in shape and speed, but will push further toward the goal of total autonomy. So different is the city in layout from the British norm that parallel trials are also being conducted in another British city, Coventry, because conditions there are more typical of the country’s denser, more congested urban average. The goal of the trial is twofold. It will test the cars’ abilities but also introduce the public to the technology, setting up sites toward the end of the trials where locals can try them out on a small, protected circuit. Winning over public opinion is vital here because, unlike with the pod car system, there aren’t as yet plans to create a publicly accessible fleet. While subsidies and other buyer incentives might feasibly end up being made available to attract buyers, the idea is primarily to turn on private owners to the advantages of such cars.

Devised and tested by the government-backed UK Autodrive consortium, the cars could develop such features as autonomous speed control and navigation and respond to most emergencies without human intervention. The consortium’s project director, Tim Armitage, says while a wholly driverless car will take another 10 years to develop, the experiment will build on existing technologies to create a car that can operate fully autonomously at least some of the time.

“There are already driver aids in existence that can be looked at as being semi-autonomous, from adapted cruise control to automatic emergency braking,” says Armitage. “The level of complexity and capability of those systems will increase over time, but the creation of entirely autonomous vehicles is still a decade away, so there will still be a driver behind the wheel who is able to take control if that is deemed to be necessary. Instead [of total autonomy], we’ve set ourselves the challenge of creating cars that will be fully autonomous for part of the time.”

Beyond the ease of driving them, the advantages of these cars could be legion. Echoing driverless car proponents like Google’s Sergey Brin, Matthews believes that the next generation of cars will benefit cities in multiple ways.

“[They] can use the highway network better than traditional cars, because they potentially use less space — you can even lock two together,” he says. “We see them as a method of reducing future congestion by using the road space more efficiently. We’re also thinking about parking cars — automatics can drop off the driver then go and park themselves, which means we could use less space.”

And of course, there is the issue of safety. Driverless cars, he says, “will take away human error, which causes 90 percent of accidents.”

For Milton Keynes, the opportunities extend beyond the city’s roadways. While the pod system trials may well lead to a permanent network in the near future, the connected car trials are more speculative, both testing the technology and opening a dialogue about it among manufacturers, city planners and the public.

“There are no plans to create a fleet of [publicly run] vehicles after the UK Autodrive program,” Armitage says. “The program is all about trialing and demonstrating the technology, enabling the car manufacturers to understand how their vehicle will work in an urban environment, to show the cities how autonomous and connected cars could change mobility provision in the urban environment and to demonstrate to the public what the connected and autonomous features really mean.”

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice If All Cities Were Like Milton Keynes?”

This is not the first time that Milton Keynes has served as a testing ground for a transportation experiment. The year the city was founded, 1967, was the first in British history where over 50 percent of households had access to a car. From its inception, the city responded to social change within Britain by imagining a way of life that had hitherto been out of reach. At the moment when its first plans were being drawn, cars represented aspiration, independence and self-reliance — seemingly, the future of British society.

Those first plans would be created by a University of Pennsylvania-educated British architect named Derek Walker. Walker took inspiration from the work of Berkeley, California-based urban theorist Melvin Webber, who had helped produce the initial feasibility studies for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) in the 1950s, but later came to believe that BART’s high cost and initial low ridership were evidence that the system — along with others like it — was in part a mistake. This belief led him to posit that the best transit solution for contemporary cities was not expensive, fixed-transit routes such as subway systems, but rather, networks of roads designed for low-density residential communities and the private motor vehicles that Americans increasingly relied on. He subsequently proposed the urban ideal of “community without propinquity” in his 1964 paper “The Urban Place and the Non-Place Urban Realm,” advocating urban planning forms that prioritized the provision of easy mobility and access (and thus freedom of choice) over placemaking and population density. These ideas were so written into Milton Keynes’ DNA that Derek Walker called his California planning guru the “father of the city.”

Webber’s legacy in Milton Keynes is a de-centered, sprawling cityscape based around micro-communities. Dubbed “grid squares” because of their encasement within a grid of four-lane roads, these large blocks contain low-density housing, shops and services designed to absorb existing small villages and be supplemented by the city center based around a single mall. Separating these grid squares from one another are “grid roads” — modest highways labeled as “H” or “V” (horizontal or vertical) separated from the residential areas by careful landscaping. The term “grid,” however, gives a perhaps misleading impression; while the roads segment the city into discrete blocks, these are not actual geometric squares. Instead the grid roads meander slightly along valley bottoms, past parks and strings of lakes to create a more flowing, less regimented impression. Landscaped and sheltered by trees, they offer drivers few hints that they are passing through a town with a substantial population.

For a British person unused to the strict zoning and suburban spread of North America, there’s something uncanny about Milton Keynes’ ability to conceal its own status as a city of a quarter of a million. Residential districts of single-family homes (still more densely laid out than typical in the U.S.) are so thoroughly shielded from the road network that each feels like an island. For the casual visitor, the city downtown is essentially a single sprawling mall. Granted, there is the grid of offices that surrounds the shopping precinct, but it remains largely sullen and unpeopled on weekends, and the mall’s crowds evaporate abruptly beyond its ring of car parks. So rigorously separated are Milton Keynes’ places to live, work and shop that the ensuing calm feels not like a failure in the creation of urban magnetism, but successful realization of the determination to avoid it. It’s as if the city’s planners have striven to ensure that, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. Add to this such exotica as mall corridors filled with palm trees and utterly un-British street names like 10th Street, and the place starts to feel like an attempt to recreate the San Fernando Valley under the slate gray skies of Bedfordshire.

Green space buffers residential neighborhoods from roads and commercial spaces in Milton Keynes. (Credit: City of Milton Keynes)

This widely circulated TV ad commissioned in the 1980s to encourage settlement in the still new city shows, if not the reality of the city, then at least what it aspired to be — a series of quaint, leafy hamlets in the midst of which suddenly appeared a megamall and a stadium.

This vision is of course no longer fashionable. Indeed the ad’s parting sentence, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” has an almost dystopian ring to it nowadays. The shift in popular thinking is manifesting in a changing skyline. Near the central mall, fairly tall office blocks have been built and some new developments have eschewed the city’s traditional land use pattern in favor of a more urban mix of offices, homes and places to eat. On the residential periphery, denser apartment housing has also been constructed, facing onto roads in order to more closely resemble a city street.

Recent development in Milton Keynes points to a denser, more urban future for the city. (Credit: City of Milton Keynes)

As the city begins to densify, it has embraced its own brand of transit for these areas, an express bus system.

The proposed bus system will mirror a tram system but run on highways. Matthews calls it a “pseudo-tram.”

It will be “a rubber-wheeled bus that could have some sort of autonomous guidance and a semi-fixed route,” he says. “We have actually started developing areas of the city that have the characteristics to introduce such a system.”

Such changes in direction have not been uncontroversial with residents attracted by the original master plan. Local campaign group Urban Eden has advocated passionately for Milton Keynes to remain faithful to its originally stated vision, seeing densification policies as officialdom caving in to avarice by squeezing more profit from land.

Anti-density activists don’t, however, have to fear Milton Keynes becoming London anytime soon. The city may further densify but short of demolishing everything and starting again, it still must work with the city plan it possesses. That makes the city singularly suitable for autonomous cars and driverless pods.

Semi-Autonomous Sustainability

There’s something striking about all these new transit plans — for driverless pods, semi-autonomous cars and extra-long buses running in spaces carved from existing highway verges. Rather than breaking with Melvin Webber’s vision of a de-centered city, where mobility trumps density and infrastructure is road rather than rail-based, it updates it for our times. Instead of creating alternatives to the road network, Milton Keynes will find cleaner, greener ways to exploit it.

If the city’s pod and connected car trials go well, its landscape could end up looking rather different. The central precinct would remain, but as semi-autonomous cars cut the need for parking lots, they could be replaced by new construction, leaving the downtown ringed by higher, more densely built new streets. Within the precinct, pods will weave comfortably with pedestrians as a familiar unremarked part of the urban crowd. Beyond this central zone, more connected cars would mean less congestion and a dramatic reduction in road accidents, a feature of a city that is greener, denser and less thoroughly wedded to private car ownership than its architects ever envisaged. Further into the future, UK Autodrive’s Tim Armitage imagines a city where the relationship between residents and the vehicles they get around in has shifted completely.

“Looking further ahead, there will be fewer cars in the city,” he says. “Public transport will be integrated and very accessible, people will walk, cycle, use pods and use buses seamlessly. They will be billed for the services they use from a citywide mobility provider. No cars will be parked in the city for extended periods of time, they will simply return to car storage areas on the outskirts of the city when not in use. Fewer people will own a passenger car — [instead] cars will be ‘hired’ when they are needed.”

For late-20th century communities laid out before the combination of residential density and mass transit became urban planning’s holy grail, this approach offers some potential solutions and a little hope. Not every suburban or exurban community has the resources — or desire — to change shape. Should Milton Keynes’ driverless car experiments prove successful, they could prove something of vital importance. Even in the West’s exurban sprawl, it is possible to create less resource-guzzling, more environmentally friendly ways of linking up communities, without resorting either radical redevelopment or massive expense.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Feargus O’Sullivan is a London-based writer on cities. He contributes regularly to Next City, CityLab and The Guardian.

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