Saturday, 26 February 2011

PESTEL Trends – Evolving the (Motor) City – Lessons from Cambridge

The growing Arabian unrest across the MENA region has of course create new dynamics in the markets. Unsurprisingly the period has been fortuitous for event-driven funds with a natural propensity - indeed remit - to speculate effects upon oil prices and in turn its effects upon specific sectors (inc autos) and the impact on the western economic re-growth story.

At such times sentiment rules over facts, and although the Libyan export output is minimal, and OPEC has stated that it will attune pumping, reserves and exports to maintain its underpinning of western rebound, oil touched $120 a barrel - well passed the intrinsic $100 psychological barrier.

Unsurprisingly, the now well-worn adage about the west being 'hostage to oil' is rolled out once again by vested interests. Realism becomes blurred by sensationalism, and the previous high-hope alternative energy answers still look somewhat blue-sky.

The small-scale electric car manufacturers like Fisker and Tesla make the most of the moment by re-featuring their premium price-tagged "sports-saloons" in stark contrast to the massive slashes of municipal budgets that were intended to support public-space e-charging and Renault's seeming about turn on the future of e-cars given the alleged internal spying which purportedly put corporate secrets of its EV business model into Chinese hands.

Thus the imminent picture gives short-term driven hedge-funds a reason to smile, whilst 'green investors' experience ever greater confusion from the conflicting signs in the press and on the mid-term horizon.

However, the Middle-Eastern dynamic and the 'real-world' lack of an alternative to oil, does provide additional impetus to the argument that conventional auto-propulsion and auto-structure technologies (ie ICE propelled & hybrid propelled) & (steel, aluminium and now emergent mass-composite shells) must continue to be developed as the only realistic way forward for auto-manufacture.

In tandem, over the course of the last decade or so governments have been re-evaluating the commercial and social use patterns of cars, trucks and heavy-goods vehicles as part of 'systems' approach to reducing CO2 and other emissions. Multiple approaches typically seeing an expansion of CO2 related vehicle taxation schemes - at purchase and in use - aswell as of course the development of toll-charged access to city-centres. Parallel schemes being periodically debated about the 'pricing' vehicle access to specific rural domains typically protected for its natural beauty or importance to the environment. Whilst towns of historic importance - such as Salisbury – prefer to have their incoming tourists adopt a park-and-ride scheme where the car is left on the urban periphery, buses used to provide a 'hi-capacity - low impact' mobility solution.

Thus, re-appropriating car-use has been perhaps the #1 issue for western town-planners in recent decades. Here in the UK the 2000s has witnessed a distinct turnabout from when the emergence of a car-culture gave rise to grid-type layouts for post-WW2 'New Towns' like Milton Keynes, and auto-mobility initiated grand road schemes; Birmingham's 'Spaghetti Junction' the grande archetype.

And the innate desire to re-populate cities and towns with increasingly 'mixed use' spaces which effectively means office & residential, has effectively marginalised car-ownership, car needs supposedly met (and arguably not so) by the rise of shared-use rental type arrangements on offer, either independently for an area, or as part of a residential 'brown-field' re-development site.

However, whilst planners seek ever improved mobility answers, the use of broad-brush 'panacea solutions' invariably lead to a loss of a town or city's unique character and dynamicism. Very few urban areas in the 'old world' have been developed from a masterplan, most simply evolving, with even those that were substantially re-modeled (such as Baron Hausmann's Paris) themselves expanding outward without accordance to any concomitant evolutionary plan. Every town and city imbues an inherent uniqueness, but all too often such character was pockmarked by US-style automotive-based town planning as a consequence of modernisation. - Coventry perhaps the worst culprit in its desire to be seen as the Midland's very own Detroit.

Today, the rule of the car has diminished even if the essential role of the car has not, yet the loudest voices petitioning any new urban mobility schema are typically anti-car, and so massively divergent criteria are put onto the shoulders of planners, ones which reflect the diametrically opposing forces of 'ideals' versus 'necessities' born from the gap between prominent well-intentioned activists and the silent majority who whilst broadly concerned by social & climate issues also seek minimal impingement of their innate freedom of mobility.

Thus in the UK and other European countries, just as there was high-ambition and over-commitment to planning for the car in the 1950s, 60s & 70s, so today we face the possibility of 'over-committing' to intendedly non-vehicular planning. PESTEL trends highlight that the car will of course not play the transformational role it once did, but equally negating the car's true social function could lead to the eventual possibility that, in years to come, the mobility of a local populace becomes increasingly restricted by virtue of the very fact that the car (per se) becomes heavily marginalised – especially so in the popular perception & consciousness - and so bit by bit people's very expectations of their 'mobility sphere' diminishes.

This then - whilst seemingly far-fetched by the apparent abundance of cars – is one real scenario outcome, and the fact that even in London the effects of the economic down-turn have seen a relatively rapid contraction of what were once heavier traffic flows during evening weekend and weekday leisure hours. Traffic flows which whilst problematic, also highlighted the fruits of economic buoyancy and personal freedoms.

As ever, typically the ideological pendulum swings too far in one direction, then counter-wise, too far in the opposite ideological direction.

The City & the Car then must come to a better and more synergistic relationship, one based on social, economic and technical reality; as opposed to one based upon high ideology. The past evidence of which conveys that any specific era-led dogma has its own limited time-frame, and moreover, aesthetically 'freezes' the area in a specific point in time; so unintentionally dating the town, when all should be 'timeless' in their own idiosyncratic manner, its qualities derived from its historic origins.

This is perhaps where successful towns differ from the unsuccessful, inherent heritage protected whilst seamlessly adapting to changing real-world conditions. Of course the more important and wealthy the town the more sensitivity to its 'living history', yet that phrase has a pertinent echo which is applicable to all: from Chaucer's medieval Canterbury with its clerical and agricultural heartland, to Orwell's Wigan reflecting a social strength in adversity.

Each town and region is specific, yet the development of Cambridge may offer insight as to how to create a synergistic and sensitive City-Car development scheme distinct to the character and needs of a town. [NB 'Insight' not 'Template'].

Of course as the pre-eminent seat of learning – alongside Oxford – with architectural masterpieces created from the wealthy patronage of bygone days and a separate demographic and intrinsic 'high-brow' mentality, it sits as 'chalk & cheese' compared to other far more typical UK urban centres.

It is fondly nicknamed the city of 'bridges and bicycles' given its Roman origins on the River Cam and the century-old propensity for inter-collegiate travel by bicycle.

Indeed, the bike adds to the very fabric and 'contextuality' of the town, the traditional sturdy bicycle with handlebar-mounted wicker basket has become so 'de rigueur' that it is used by non-student locals of all ages and backgrounds to emphasize their personal connection to the town.

[NB The more aspirant younger local female 'Townies' (as opposed to the student 'Gownies') ride around on new retro-esque Pashley's, with 'peddle pusher' Capri pants and classic boating shoes...looking every bit the part except for the 'tell-tale' aspects of newness (so endemic in social snobbery) and an obviously provincial local accent. The Cambridge icon is even used in a modified form as an intended counter-culture statement by one young black guy, who rides his 'low-rider style' with low seat and high bars, thereby 'cross-breeding' two adopted cultures: the typical Don's bicycle and the SoCal low-rider bike, which is currently en vogue in UK hip-hop & 'Grime' circles, but was typically build for the children of 2nd generation Mexicans to mimic their father's low-rider car].

Thus for Cambridge (perhaps more so than Oxford) the bike serves as a contextual part of the town-scape, an almost organic element that grew naturally and has been socially interwoven. This a counter-point to London's bike rental scheme, which whilst laudable in its aims, can at times seem at odds – especially safety-wise – with the much faster moving capital city.

Thus, in Cambridge the bicycle, the car and the bus appear to have far greater confluence, no doubt a result of organic growth and greater sensitivity regards mobility planning, This perhaps in no small part due to the fact that many of the colleges actually own land within the town and so act with a greater sense of stewardship, as opposed to the far more process-driven mentalities of many local council planners.

One very visible aspect is the 'automatic courden' of motor vehicle access to the historic centre on weekend evenings. Tourists particularly note the use of discreet road-embedded automatic barrier poles, which silently fall and rise to allow only taxi-cabs into the centre, thereby massively reducing congestion and deterring the usual entry of loud and vexatious youth in their cars, which obviously spoil the tranquility and atmosphere of the town for locals and all important visitors.

As a consequence mobility issues appear to be addressed at the local level by parties with a direct involvement. Whilst this echoes the current government's Big Society ideal, such local stakeholder participation is obviously far easier to address in Cambridge given its lineage and propensity for self-governance, than many others across the country in stark contrast.

However, whether obvious at the surface or hidden below, the innate local character remains and should serve as a cultural reference-point when developing mobility solutions as part of a greater effort in maintaining, recapturing or simply servicing the town, city or region.

To this end, because the bus, tram, car and bicycle operate as the moving parts of the landscape these too should be viewed not simply from their functional 'people-moving' perspective which necessitates vehicle-specific route-ways and courdening, but as critical moving parts of the aesthetic whole which play a role in creating a local culture and consciousness.

Today, we see greater 'localisation' in obvious progress, from the national independence movement reflected in the administrative separation of Scotland & Wales, to the appearance of 'Free' schools with intentions for far greater parent-led involvement. Equally, we see greater conscientiousness regards the formula and origins of food-stuffs, given greater concerns about nutrition and sustainable 'food-miles'.

'Localisation' has thus become part of the 21st century narrative that underpins society, our manufacturing & service industries aswell of course regional and national economies.

To this end investment-auto-motives believes that the car still has a major part to play in the transport eco-systems being developed, and that the eco-mobility solutions being created should reflect regional character and needs so as to re-instigate regional connection and pride. The two prominent themes of eco-sustainability and character should be part of the basic DNA of future UK manufactured, assembled and serviced goods. Transport goods spanning:

1. human powered vehicles of greater variety and flexibility – as seen in Europe.

2. electric & ICE powered scooters developing the 'migratory' user rational of the BMW C1, Piaggio MP3 etc.

3. a new breed of urban-focused small passenger car, ICE & Hybrid propelled of light-weight construction which also offer immediate long-range convenience at the 'expense' of rarely used 'performance' capabilities. These created as '4-type' vehicle palette (which includes Gordon Murray's T25 concept funded by the UK's Technology Board, and utilises the R&D and proven small vehicle packaging abilities of foreign automakers with concomitant FDI opportunity)

The 'auto-manifesto' to also leverage the localisation possibilities generated from 'Micro-Factory Retailing' as more recently espoused by Cardiff Business School's Centre for Automotive Research, and seemingly intrinsic to the T25 'i-Stream' build process.

[NB Here the functional origins of the Morgan Car Co could serve as inspiration 100 years on, itself born from the local transport needs of its Founder 'HFS' in Malvern Link, Worcestershire].

4. a new breed of urban-focused medium-sized utility vehicle (van & pick-up), with prime requisites of lightweight constructional, on par GVW load-carrying capabilities to current vehicles, highly efficient vehicle packaging layout to provide maximum space utilisation and intelligent space-use solutions both internally and externally.

As presented in the last web-log article, investment-auto-motives believes the US will be deploying a good portion of its QE & QE2 raised funds to effectively 'buy-in' its much needed 21st century eco-tech capabilities, through M&A of cash-backed US companies and target European, Japanese and S.Korean companies whose R&D sits at the leading edge of eco-tech. This enabled by the ongoing consolidation of intercontinental stock-exchanges, and the still evident use of implicit and explicit 'soft-power' policies. [NB see “Liquidity & Linkages” 19.02.2011]

For good reason given its more limited economic and global reach powers, Britain sits in direct contrast to the US. Its more constrained availability of liquidity and its political position means that it must think very differently, more independently in developing its own eco-tech capabilities – thereby raising its own R&D capabilities - and with far more of a bi-partisan spirit toward internationalism, thus effectively a friendlier face than perhaps the case for the US. This reality well reflected in the mantra of the London School of Economics with its focus on 'strategic diplomacy'.

Thus the UK enters the second decade of the 21st century with a major challenge of re-invigorating its economic growth, as a much needed '2nd Act', after the well entrenched need to cut the national deficit.

Critics were right to highlight the loss of manufacturing capability – especially apparent given Germany's ability to ride the recession – yet were also wrong to deride the critical input of the UK's Financial Services sector.

As investment-auto-motives trusts it has demonstrated, building a new Britain which is inspired by its inspirational true heart and creates a tenable future, depends upon the intelligent coalescence of manufacturing and finance, and upon the intelligent coalescence of localism and internationalism, so as to powerfully develop and psychologically embrace the much needed eco-tech which can serve personal and mass transport solutions throughout our very individual and charismatic cities, towns and regions across the land.