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1. Highway to hail

Australia

What: Pacific Highway upgrade
Estimated cost: €10bn
When: 2020

For the past 23 years the New South Wales and Australian governments have been funding the nation’s largest road infrastructure project. Once finalised next year, the Pacific Highway upgrade will provide an improved motorway link between Sydney and Brisbane with 657km of new tarmac.

The €10bn project was meant to reduce fatalities on this once-notorious stretch of road and deaths have indeed halved. Meanwhile, the journey time has been cut by two-and-a-half hours, a boon for Australia’s road-haulage industry. “It is about delivering safer roads, improved travel times and boosting freight productivity,” says Paul Toole, the state’s minister for regional transport and roads.

Despite fears that removing the highway from regional centres could create ghost towns, the change has in fact reduced pollution and increased trade and tourism. “We want to better connect communities through this transformative infrastructure,” says Toole. We hope high-speed rail linking major cities is next on Australia’s to-do list.


2. Just the ticket

Luxembourg

What: Free public transport
Estimated cost: €41m per year
When: March 2020

All-day passes on Luxembourg’s public-transport network currently cost €4. But even this nominal fare – which until now has been 93 per cent subsidised by taxpayers – will fall to zero from March 2020, making Luxembourg the first country in the world to abolish public-transport fares.

“In the 21st century, transport is one of the biggest contributors to climate change,” says François Bausch, Luxembourg’s minister for mobility. “It’s our responsibility to change people’s behaviour and with it reduce carbon emissions and alleviate congestion. Free public transport is just the cherry on top of a comprehensive mobility strategy.”

Under a coalition government of centrist, leftist and green parties since 2013, Luxembourg has invested heavily in public transport, extending infrastructure to every corner of the country with the aim of reducing car journeys. The government hopes that dropping fares will provide an extra incentive; with Paris and Brussels considering similar schemes, this tiny nation is setting the pace.


3. Emission impossible

Chile

What: Santiago’s electric-bus fleet
Estimated cost: €30m
When: By 2022

In a bid to combat shockingly high levels of air pollution, zero-emission electric buses are now plying the streets of Chile’s capital, Santiago, in what will become the second-biggest green fleet outside China. The 100 new Chinese-made models incorporated into the city’s network since March will be joined by another 100 later this year; the plan is for that number to climb to 5,300 – about 80 per cent of the city’s buses – by 2022.

The new vehicles, which can travel 300km on a single charge, have seats equipped with usb ports for charging devices, free onboard wi-fi and operating costs almost 80 per cent lower than for diesel-powered buses. China’s byd is supplying the buses, while European energy firm Enel is providing the bulk of financing for both the vehicles and, crucially, the solar-powered charging stations.

“There’s a real interest on behalf of our country to promote electro-mobility and develop public transport that’s environmentally friendly,” says Santiago’s mayor, Felipe Alessandri. “This is a big first step but there is much more to do. We must motivate individual drivers to take part in this electric-vehicle movement, with the proper incentives to leave their cars behind and look to more sustainable transport options, such as walking or cycling.”

The scheme has raised common concerns about the role of China, which last year accounted for about one third of Chile’s foreign trade and has pursued contracts aggressively – even pushing out bids from Chilean firms to supply a bus for the national football team. The upside for Santiago’s commuters, however, is undeniable.


4. Well-rounded neighbourhood

Switzerland

What: Zürich Airport’s new complex
Estimated cost: €880m
When: Hopefully by mid-2020

Zürich Airport’s growing number of visitors has inspired its most unusual project yet: The Circle. Spearheaded by the airport and insurance company Swiss Life, the plan is for the half-moon shaped building to provide a whole new neighbourhood of the city. Its hotels, offices, shops, galleries, gyms and hospital are brought together in a design that architect Riken Yamamoto says was inspired by Zürich’s old town.

“Although Zürich Airport is not large, it is one of the largest city-based airports in the world,” says Beat Pahud, the project’s director. “It’s well connected to the city centre by a 10-minute commute. We wanted to use this location and create something special – a district of Zürich.”

Pahud sees this as a natural progression as airports increasingly become places to meet and shop rather than just transit hubs. In Zürich Airport, this transformation is already underway: it became Switzerland’s biggest shopping mall this year. The Circle wants to push its retail offering further; think sports-shoe shops that let you take the stock for a test run.

The project’s ambition comes with its challenges. At 180,000 sq m it’s five times bigger than the current commercial space, with little over half rented out so far. Meanwhile, the task of fully connecting it to the city’s public transport and infrastructure has pushed back the opening by a year. There are also concerns that it will divert shoppers from the city centre and potentially lure World Economic Forum events away from Davos. Whether such fears are well placed remains to be seen.


5. Riding the currents

Canada

What: British Columbia’s electric airline
Estimated cost: Undisclosed
When: By 2022

Boarding a seaplane is a quintessentially West Coast travel experience and one that’s overwhelmingly associated with Harbour Air, North America’s largest seaplane operator. Founded in 1982 with two aircraft, the British Columbia-based outfit now flies more than 500,000 passengers a year between 13 locations – everyone from tourists and commuters to politicians bound for parliament in Victoria.

Aware of growing concerns about the 2 per cent of global co2 emitted by aircraft, Harbour Air decided to partner with US-based engineering firm Magnix to convert its entire fleet to e-planes. For the moment it is being coy about the costs involved but the first test flight is planned for November.

“I expect investment in this technology to escalate and the flying public to demand that the aircraft they fly in be sustainable,” says Harbour Air ceo Greg McDougall at the firm’s headquarters on the outskirts of Vancouver. Electric batteries are not yet a viable option for larger airliners that fly long-haul but Harbour Air hopes to inspire others. “We are already starting to see positive comments and action from the industry. Operators are asking how they can be part of the movement and convert their aircraft, while parts suppliers are asking what they can do to help.”

In years to come, when you board a seaplane from Vancouver to Victoria you’ll know you’re travelling on an aircraft that’s doing its bit to preserve the view. “Harbour Air is in a unique position because of its short-haul routes and aircraft size. We can lead the charge on this,” says McDougall. “And frankly, it’s good business too.”


Comment by Sam Potter

Sam Potter, architect and design director at UK developer Reef Group, considers how autonomous vehicles could radically reshape urban landscapes.

The most recent reliable estimate for the number of parking spaces in London was by Transport for London in 2000. It estimated that there were 6.8 million of them in the city. That’s about 8,000 hectares of space available for the storage of private goods in the public domain. If you consider that most private vehicles are only used for 4 per cent of the time, that’s a massive waste.

Autonomous vehicles could change all this by shifting our transport network from being driver-based to passenger-based, where managed fleets of vehicles are in continuous circulation, matching supply with demand and with no need to park for extended periods. In the next 10 years more than 30 per cent of new car sales could be linked to shared-use models, meaning that mobility demands could continue to be met by a mix of transport modes but with far greater efficiency and the freeing-up of land. Plus, there’s the cleaner environment as transport shifts to electrification.

Of course, all this will mean there will be substantial requirements for drop-off, pick-up and loading. Fortunately, exemplars of this future already exist: look at Exhibition Road in London’s South Kensington, where vehicles and pedestrians share space but those on foot have priority. Getting rid of parking spaces through greater use of autonomous vehicles would enable this novelty to become the norm. Shared and narrowed carriageways could become generous tree-lined footways, multistorey carparks could be replaced with mixed-use public-facing developments and whole redundant carriageways could be occupied with verdant, low-line linear parks, creating pathways for pedestrians and micro-mobility transit.

London desperately needs this evolution to accommodate its burgeoning population, improve health and release land for urban densification. It is too early to tell exactly how the autonomous evolution will alter our built environment but the opportunity to enhance our urban public realm is unprecedented.

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