Bicycles, not autonomous cars, are the technological gateway to progress

Opinion article: Bicycles can be at the center of the technological revolution that our cities need. Might require us to use a different lens

I take lots of noise from campaigners and campaigners for bikes to be taken seriously at last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, and for active travel to be added to the statement about accelerating the decarbonisation of road transport.

Beyond the serious lobbying of the auto industries, there seems to be a psychological block that prevents the bicycle from being accepted as a central technology in imagining the future of cities.

Sometimes money speaks louder. From 2010, More than $200 billion has been invested in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. Over a similar period of time, just over $2 billion was spent on cyclist and pedestrian initiatives in the European Union.

If we are to believe the almighty technologists, the dream of autonomous vehicles is just around the corner. However, looking at the last two years, the biggest revolution has come from vehicles on two wheels. Fueled by the pandemic, supported by people waking up to the climate crisis, and now fueled by rising oil prices, we are experiencing a bicycle renaissance.

Of From Bogotá to Paris, from New York to Milan, crucial investments in city cycling networks have enabled many people to abandon cars for bicycles. An increasing number of companies are also switching to electric cargo bikes to increase their efficiency and cut costs, with the number of sales more than doubling between 2019 and 2021. To encourage this shift, France is now giving up €4,000 to people who swap their car for an electric bike.

In 2021, twice as many electric bikes were sold as electric cars across Europe. In 2019, Elon Musk promised millions of fully autonomous cars on the roads within a year. Automakers promising to solve our problems with new car technology and not delivering is nothing new.

Today, the potential benefits of cycling for health, congestion, pollution and CO2 emissions are very clear and increasingly quantifiable, but the benefits of autonomous vehicles remain elusive. When ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft promised to reduce congestion and reduce car ownership, they instead increased congestion and caused ridership to decline. A similar turn of events is more than likely for autonomous vehicles.

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So where does the gap come from between our imagined future, the promises of the techno-kings, and the realities of progress?

Imagining and developing collective narratives about the future is the first fundamental step to realize it, but we tend to discard it. As a physicist and philosopher Dr. Ursula Franklin described, technology is the house we have built for ourselves. When we represent a certain vision of the future, we are drawing a first sketch of the house. A decent sketch is an essential first step to a good house.

Technologists have long since managed to shape our narratives of progress around objects and their specific capabilities. It’s hard not to dream of things drawn from the worlds of science fiction, like flying cars, drones, and delivery robots, when you think about the next 20 years.

But human progress is not limited to how complex and powerful our technological artifacts are. What is happening in the US with abortion laws and gun violence should make this pretty obvious. So should the realities of the climate crisis.

In the context of progress, technology is best understood through the prism of complex systems. We need to consider the ramifications of a technology as it permeates society, how it shapes our organization, our interactions and mindsets.

Like an environmentalist who reads the relationships that make up an ecosystem, our perception of “car technology” must include dependence on oil, highways, parking in cities, the behavior of drivers on the roads towards each other, and the laws we have put in place. in place to hold it.

The concept of “jaywalking,” for example, is an integral part of today’s “car technology.” The crime of crossing a street without respecting the prevalence of cars was invented by the auto industry in the 1920s, which pushed hard to define streets as a place for cars, not people. Our current automotive technology is also defined by the restriction of movement it places on people.

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When we begin to view technology through the lens of systems, it becomes clear that genuine technology-driven progress will focus on dealing with the accelerating complexity of today’s world, not increasing the complexity of our tools.

In cities, cycle logistics is slowly but surely proving that cargo bikes can outperform van deliveries in cities and have the potential to fundamentally transform cities (the rise of e-commerce deliveries has made vans one of the worst performers in cities, with disproportionate effects on congestion, pollution, urban space and victims on the roads). While cargo bikes as such are unlikely to change drastically, their potential remains largely untapped. One of the reasons for this stems from the limitations of the van technology that organizes urban deliveries. Our best AI algorithms are currently unable to model the agility of cargo bikes as logistics vehicles and the dynamic operations they enable in complex and uncertain urban environments. Software that can dynamically optimize scenarios where trucks “feed back” cargo bikes throughout the day is just an early stage.

Similarly, network scientists have recently been developing new algorithms to efficiently grow bicycle networks in cities using data. Here again, the core of the innovation lies not in revolutionizing the bicycle (and why should we, with the fastest, most energy-efficient, most durable and low-carbon urban vehicle?), but in organizing intelligently urban mobility flows.

While these changes may be more difficult to perceive than the latest devices, their measurable impact on travel and people’s accessibility are noteworthy and undoubtedly signs of progress.

Despite the reluctance of technologists, bicycles may be at the center of the necessary technological revolution in cities. It might require us to use a different lens.

Nicolas Collignon is co-founder of Kale Collective, a technology company whose goal is to accelerate the transition to cargo bike logistics in cities. He has a Ph.D. in cognitive computational science and has worked as a data scientist at a cargo bike logistics startup as well as a cargo bike manufacturer.

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