End of Cars
Stephen Moss

Cities around the world are coming to the same conclusion: they’d be better off with far fewer cars. So what’s behind this seismic shift in our urban lifestyles? Stephen Moss goes on an epic (car-free) journey to find out

2025 No Cars = More Space
Smallbrook Ringway, part of Birmingham’s original, road-dominated Bull Ring development. Photograph: PA Archive
Walthamstow Village has seen a 20% drop in vehicle numbers since trialling its cycle-friendly neighbourhood scheme. Photograph: Alamy

Gilles Vesco calls it the “new mobility”. It’s a vision of cities in which residents no longer rely on their cars but on public transport, shared cars and bikes and, above all, on real-time data on their smartphones. He anticipates a revolution which will transform not just transport but the cities themselves. “The goal is to rebalance the public space and create a city for people,” he says. “There will be less pollution, less noise, less stress; it will be a more walkable city.”

Vesco, the politician responsible for sustainable transport in Lyon, played a leading role in introducing the city’s Vélo’v bike-sharing scheme a decade ago. It has since been replicated in cities all over the world. Now, though, he is convinced that digital technology has changed the rules of the game, and will make possible the move away from cars that was unimaginable when Vélo’v launched in May 2005. “Digital information is the fuel of mobility,” he says. “Some transport sociologists say that information about mobility is 50% of mobility. The car will become an accessory to the smartphone.”

Vesco is nothing if not an evangelist. “Sharing is the new paradigm of urban mobility. Tomorrow, you will judge a city according to what it is adding to sharing. The more that we have people sharing transportation modes, public space, information and new services, the more attractive the city will be.”

The Vélo’v scheme is being extended, car clubs that use electric vehicles are being encouraged, and what Vesco calls a “collaborative platform” has been built to encourage ride-sharing by matching drivers with people seeking lifts. There is, he says, no longer any need for residents of Lyon to own a car. And he practises what he preaches – he doesn’t own one himself.

The number of cars entering the city has fallen by 20% over the past decade, without even a congestion-charging scheme (Vesco says it would impose a disproportionate burden on the less well-off, who tend to drive higher-polluting vehicles). And even though Lyon’s population is expected to rise by more than 10% over the next decade, he is targeting a further 20% drop in car use. The car parks that used to run alongside the banks of Lyon’s two rivers have already been removed, and human parks opened in their place. Vesco says someone returning to Lyon for the first time in a decade would barely recognise the city.

Birmingham, which vies with Manchester for the title of England’s second city, has been following the experience of Lyon and other European cities closely, and is now embarking on its own 20-year plan called Birmingham Connected, to reduce dependence on cars. For a city so associated in the public mind with car manufacturing, this is quite a step. The initiative is being driven by the veteran leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, who talks airily about imposing a three-dimensional transport plan on the two-dimensional geography of the city: “French and German cities all have an infrastructure which has a far better understanding of how you need to map the city with layers of travel.”

“Multi-modal” and “interconnectivity” are now the words on every urban planner’s lips. In Munich, says Bore, planners told him that the city dwellers of the future would no longer need cars. Bikes and more efficient public transport would be the norm; for occasional trips out of the city, they could hire a car or join a car club that facilitated inter-city travel. The statistic everyone trots out is that your car sits outside, idle and depreciating, for 96% of its life. There has to be a more efficient way to provide for the average of seven hours a week when you want it.

Car clubs offer a second statistic. Whereas a personally owned car caters for an individual or a family, a car-club car can service 60 people. As I type this I look at the VW Golf sitting outside my window, which I last drove a fortnight ago. Private cars are wasteful and expensive.

Bore recognises that his plan to transform his city will not be easy, and will require a healthy dose of public education. “Birmingham was seen as the champion of the car,” he says, “and as a result it didn’t develop an underground or the tram network you see in major cities across Europe. There’s been a failure to develop those systems because there’s been no longer-term vision.” Birmingham now has a long-term plan – but what it doesn’t have is the money. It needs £4bn; so far it has raised only £1.2bn. Central government, private-sector developers and local businesses are going to have be convinced it’s worth it.

Anne Shaw, Birmingham’s head of transportation services, walks me round the centre of the city to show me the changes already taking place. The single tram line, which runs from Wolverhampton, is being extended; the gyratory road which cuts off many of the municipal buildings is being taken out and traffic re-routed; forbidding concrete subways are being removed; cycle lanes are being put in, and a fast bus service is planned.

One day, perhaps, Birmingham will even have its own underground system, though that is many years and millions of pounds away. Commuting into Birmingham is currently split 50-50 between car and public transport; that, too, has to change – in London, only 15% of commuters use a car. In Birmingham, the district in the centre which houses Symphony Hall and the new state-of-the-art library is called Paradise. One day, Bore hopes it will live up to its name.

The planners in Birmingham accept they are late to the party. London, which has pioneered congestion charging and has a well-integrated system of public transport, has led the move away from cars over the past decade, during which time 9% of car commuters have switched to other forms of transport. “People in London have a lot of options and there’s been huge growth across all modes,” says Isabel Dedring, the American-born deputy mayor for transport in the capital. “There’s been a massive increase in investment in public transport.”

London’s Piccadilly Circus in 1969, when car parking was still free in most of the capital. Photograph: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex Features

Dedring says London has always been progressive in terms of public transport – its narrow, twisting roads were never conducive to the automotive domination that occurred in many US and European cities in the 1960s and 70s, when the car was king. But from the turn of the millennium, there has been a concerted attempt to encourage switching to other modes of transport, and the past decade has seen a 30% reduction in traffic in central London.

    “Traffic levels have gone down massively,” says Dedring, “partly because of the congestion charge, but also because we are taking away space from private vehicles and giving it to buses through bus lanes and to people through public realm [developments].”

And now to cyclists, too, with the planned “cycle superhighways” and cycle-friendly neighbourhoods being trialled in three London boroughs.

In Waltham Forest, which is running one of those pilot schemes (tagged “mini-Holland”), I go cycling with councillor Clyde Loakes, deputy leader of the council and the cabinet member responsible for the environment. What used to be rat runs in the area now known as Walthamstow Village have been closed to through-traffic, and at a stroke the number of vehicles using the area has dropped by more than 20%. The area is remarkably quiet and relaxed when we cycle around one weekday afternoon; indeed it comes as quite a shock when we leave the confines of the village and are suddenly pitched back into the noise and traffic as we head to the town hall.

Loakes says the trial is an attempt to alter behaviour and the feel of the area, but is also a recognition that change is already occurring. “In Waltham Forest, we have an increasing number of households without a car. Public transport is getting better; we have an increasingly young demographic; and in many of the developments being built car parking is not a priority, so car ownership is not an option.”

To put it more bluntly: many city developments are now predicated on there being no car spaces for residents. Developers worried about this initially, but have come to realise it doesn’t pose a problem for the young professionals likely to be buying their flats, so have accepted the demands of council planning departments.

The inner-London borough of Hackney, which prides itself on being the greenest council in London, tells a similar story. “We are trying to create a more liveable environment,” says councillor Feryal Demirci, the cabinet member for neighbourhoods, “and car-free developments are one way of doing that.” She says almost 90% of the developments currently under way are completely car-free, with the council guaranteeing alternatives to personally owned cars, including a commitment that every resident will live within three minutes of a car-club bay.

The statistic Hackney is proudest of is that more than 15% of its residents commute to work by bike. “It’s about creating an environment where it’s easier for people to cycle or take the bus, so they’re not relying on cars,” Demirci says. Car ownership in the borough has dropped over the past 10 years: whereas a decade ago 56% of households did not own a car, that figure now stands at 65%. Hackney, which is not on the underground network, also claims the highest level of bus usage in London. Though the population has risen by 45,000, the number of cars owned by people in the area has fallen by 3,000. These are trends that urban planners elsewhere would kill for.

This model of denser, less car-dependent cities is becoming the accepted wisdom across the developed world. “The height [of buildings] is going up; density is going up; borough policies and London plan policies are all about intensification and densification of land uses,” explains Ben Kennedy, Hackney’s principal transport planner. “We’re probably going the way of Manhattan. People live very close and they don’t travel at all because everything is on their doorstep; the population in one block is so high, it can support all the amenities you could ever want. We’re slowly going in that direction in London.”

A Revolution is Coming, But it Costs Money

Rikhard Manninen is another man with a plan – a very large plan, which is laid out on a table in his office in the centre of Helsinki. Manninen is director of the city’s strategic urban planning division. The project is a vision of how the city will look in 2050. It will have a lot more people – the population is projected to rise by 50% – but with much less dependence on cars. The city’s population density will be increased; many of the new high-rise apartment blocks will not have residents’ car parking; key arteries into the city will be replaced by boulevards; more and more space will be given over to cycle lanes. A report on the plan in the Helsinki Times last year confidently predicted: “The future resident of Helsinki will not own a car.”

“Agglomeration” is the buzzword that planners such as Manninen like to use, and the benefits which derive from it are driving the vision of a new city. “When you are located quite close, businesses can interact more easily; people can walk to work and use public transport. It’s more efficient.”

In many cities, the era of the suburban commuter, along with the era of the car, is drawing to a close. Manninen no longer wants a city with a single centre; he envisages a multi-polar city with half-a-dozen hubs where people live, work, shop and play. This will reduce transport congestion and generate a series of vibrant, efficiently organised, semi-autonomous units – that’s the plan, anyway.

Though Finland is seen as a pioneer in sustainable transport, the reality is rather different. Because the country came late to urbanisation and there was a huge amount of development in the 1950s and 60s, commuting by car is more entrenched than in some older cities. Finns have tended to live in the suburbs, driving to the centre of Helsinki to work and to their beloved country cottages at weekends. But Manninen echoes Vesco in Lyon in his view that attitudes are changing: “The younger generation are no longer car dependent. They are less likely to have a driving licence than previous generations.”

Generation Y, the so-called millennials now in their 20s and early 30s who have come of age in the digital era, seem less wedded to possessions than their baby boomer predecessors. Surveys show that the one object that is prized is the smartphone, and the future of transport is likely to be based not on individually owned cars but on “mobility as a service” – a phrase supposedly coined by another Finn, Sampo Hietanen, chief executive of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Finland. Consumers will, so the theory goes, use their smartphones to check ultra-detailed travel news, locate car-club cars or bikes, check for parking spaces, call up Uber drivers, and arrange shared rides. Who needs a personally owned car?

While in Helsinki, I meet a delegation from the city’s Regional Transport Authority. I’m struck not just by their commitment to sustainable transport, but their willingness to engage with the public. They send staff into schools and workplaces to try to win converts to walking, cycling and public transport, and take their message to older people, who are usually the most resistant to abandoning their cars.

Helsinki’s Baana bicycle corridor opened to the public in 2012. Photograph: Alamy

One of the initiatives they are proudest of is their Kutsuplus (“Call plus”) bus service – a fleet of nine-seater minibuses whose routes are determined by the bookings they get on any given day. It’s a great idea, and I book a bus to take me from their offices into town. It arrives quickly, picks me up at a bus stop just 100 metres away, and costs €5 for the two-mile trip. The problem is that, so far, Helsinki only has 15 buses, and doesn’t have the funding for any more. Like many of the schemes currently under way, it’s at the pilot stage. There’s a revolution coming, but revolutions cost money.

“We are not making a car-free Helsinki – that is not possible,” says Reetta Putkonen, director of the transport and traffic planning division, who I meet for lunch at an exhibition space devoted to the city’s vision of the future. “But we are going to take control of where the cars are and how they are used, so that we will have places where it’s really nice to walk, it’s very fast and easy to bike, and public transport is highly efficient. Walkers will be the kings, and the cyclists will have their own paths. We will still have cars – people need them for carrying goods – but their speeds will be very low and there won’t be so many of them. Our planning shouldn’t be based on cars and on parking. It will be a balanced system.”

After lunch, I meet another Reetta – not all Finnish women are called Reetta, they assure me. Reetta Keisanen is the city’s cycling coordinator, and she has brought two of the department’s pool bikes for us to undertake a tour of the city. She takes me first along a cycle path that used to be a rail track, linking the town centre with the harbour. Halfway along the route, there is an electronic register counting the cycles as they pass – I am the 54,672nd so far this year. Reetta II tells me that 96% of the residents of Helsinki are pro-cycling, though Reetta I had cautioned that the figure might be lower if motorists realised how much of their road space was being eaten into.

There are only three gears on the bike and I am not dressed for this sudden spasm of activity – instead of shorts, I am wearing thick trousers and jacket – so it is a struggle, especially on the gritty areas near the seafront. It is, though, pleasant when we eventually get there, and sit in the spring sunshine in the garden of the Regatta, a tiny wooden café which is one of Helsinki’s best-loved attractions.

Keisanen, who is in her mid-20s and committed to the sustainability cause, is convinced a major change is afoot. “We’ve got lots of work to do because many Finns still own cars,” she says, “but in cities it is now possible to live without a car, and young people are buying fewer cars than older people.” Cycling in Helsinki has doubled since 1997, and Keisanen predicts further increases as the cycling network expands. I suggest to her that not all cyclists behave well – I am thinking of the ones I see in London who whizz along pavements and go in the wrong direction down one-way streets – but she has a good answer. “Cities get the cyclists they deserve. If you have good infrastructure, you will get good cyclists. It’s the same with drivers and pedestrians.”

Cars line up to enter the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel heading into Mahattan during New York’s first full-scale transit strike in 1966. Photograph: Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
Personal Rapid Transport cars on display at the Institute of Science and Technology in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi. Photograph: Iain Masterton/incamerastock/Corbis
To Drive or Not to Drive: Have We Reached ‘Peak Car’?

All the trends in cities appear to be moving in the direction favoured by environmentalists, so do they think they are finally winning? “We’re at a stage now in history where people, especially young people, want to have the choice whether to drive or not to drive,” says Jason Torrance, policy director at sustainable transport group Sustrans. “We’ve seen a huge change over the past five years around an ownership model. You now have Spotify and other on-demand services. My entire record collection is in the loft. We have everything on iTunes and Spotify and my son, who is six, only vaguely knows what a CD is.”

Torrance says the appetite is there for alternatives to the car, and that some cities – both in Europe and in the developing world, notably China – are responding to the challenge. The pro-car attitude which was dominant in the UK from the 1960s through to the end of the Conservative Thatcher era has certainly declined but, he says: “We have a poverty of ambition in the UK in our relationship with cars, and our city leaders should be a lot bolder.”

Sustrans’ response to what it sees as government inertia is to get involved in grassroots projects such as its DIY Streets scheme, where it works with local councils and residents to reduce the way cars affect their streets. The aim is to let the residents decide what they want in terms of traffic flow and number of parking spaces. “We find residents on DIY streets drive much less, there is a significant increase in the number of kids playing on the street, and there is a lot more cycling,” he says.

Torrance believes we are still wedded to the car as a status symbol, but others disagree. Stephen Bayley, who has written several books on car design, is convinced the age of the car is coming to an end. “It’s five minutes to midnight for the private car,” he says. “It’s no longer rational to use cars in cities like London.” Cars were invented as agents of freedom, but to drive (and, worse, to have to park) one in a city is tantamount to punishment.

Bayley also believes the arrival of driverless cars will further undermine the driving experience. Sex, beauty, status, freedom – all the words which advertisers have tried to associate with cars over the past 50 years – have been replaced by mere functionality.

“There was some research a year or so ago which interviewed people in their 20s and 30s,” he says. “The great majority said they would rather give up their car than their smartphone, and in their list of cool brands, no car manufacturer appeared in the top 20. That’s a very significant change. Twenty years ago, if you’d asked young people, BMW and other car brands would certainly have featured.”

Citroen DS cars on display on the Champs-Elysées in Paris in the mid-60s. Photograph: Charles Edridge/Getty Images

Bayley draws my attention to the French philosopher Roland Barthes’ homage to the Citroën DS, which appeared in his 1957 book Mythologies. “I believe that the automobile is, today, the almost exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals,” wrote Barthes. “I mean, a great creation of the period, passionately conceived by unknown artists, consumed in its image, if not its use, by an entire populace which appropriates in it an entirely magical object.” These days, cars all look the same and pretty soon, if the manufacturers have their way, we won’t even have to drive them.

Christian Wolmar, the transport analyst who is seeking the Labour nomination for the London mayoralty in 2016, welcomes this demystification of the car. “Attitudes have changed,” he says. “My stepson didn’t bother passing his driving test till he was 27. None of my kids are car-oriented in the way that we were. When I was a teenager [he is now 65], we lived in Kensington and I used to borrow my mother’s car, drive into the centre in the evening, park it somewhere, go to the cinema and a nightclub, then drive home again. That is inconceivable today with drink-driving laws, parking and the general hassle of it all. We have begun to shift away from cars. On trains, people can use their mobile devices; ‘peak car’ seems to have been reached in America, with young people favouring what they call transit; and there is a trend of younger people no longer seeing the car as central to their lives.”

Peak car. This is a phrase I hear again and again. The question of whether there is now an irreversible move away from cars towards other forms of transport is central to the cars-in-cities debate. Glenn Lyons, founder of the Centre for Transport and Society at the University of the West of England, is in no doubt that something fundamental is happening. “For the past decade, predating the global economic downturn, car traffic has been flatlining. This is true not only of the UK but of a number of other developed economies around the world.”

According to Lyons: “Young people have stood out particularly. Car licence acquisition has been going down among younger age groups, and there are strong suspicions that the digital age is contributing to why people now have less reliance on physical mobility. We are in the midst of a fundamental regime transition in society. We are increasingly seeing the car as a functional technology to get from A to B, rather than the much more symbolic representation it had in defining society in previous generations. That is not to suggest the car is done and finished with, but I believe it will become a background technology.”

David Metz, former chief scientist at the Department for Transport and now visiting professor at University College London’s Centre for Transport Studies, published a book last year called Peak Car, in which he argued that “car use in developed economies has reached a maximum” and that “we have come to the end of an era in which we have steadily travelled more”. “Car use per capita in most of the developed economies has stopped growing,” he tells me, “and stopped growing well before the recession. If you look at the UK data, you see a long-term rise in car travel which came to a stop in the late 1990s.”

Holding out against what is rapidly becoming the orthodoxy is Stephen Glaister, former professor of transport at Imperial College and about to retire as director of the Royal Automobile Club Foundation: “Until the 2008 recession, broadly speaking there was continued growth [in car travel],” he insists. “Then the young age group were very badly hit economically, so it’s not surprising their take-up of driving licences is falling. To what extent that’s also to do with some fundamental change in attitudes remains to be seen. Let’s see what happens when they get to 30 and have a family.”

Glaister points out that the Department for Transport is still assuming an overall increase in traffic of more than 25% by 2040. “You can make different assumptions about oil prices and demographic effects,” he says, “but whichever way you look at it, you’re going to get substantial traffic growth.” Stephen Joseph, executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport, counters that the DfT is hooked on out-of-date thinking: “What we are still battling with is a bunch of policies, design manuals and ways of thinking that are driven by 1989; that where we’re going to end up is Los Angeles and that’s the natural order of things. But that’s not true. It’s not even true worldwide: there are examples, particularly in parts of Latin America, of cities that have been built around buses rather than cars. The idea that the natural end of development is Los Angeles – even Los Angeles doesn’t think that now.”

So where does this leave car manufacturers? At a conference on driverless cars organised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), I buttonhole BMW executive Glenn Schmidt, who is giving a talk on what this future generation of cars means for a manufacturer such as BMW, which has traditionally put great emphasis on the driving experience. In his talk, he admits we are now seeing “a shift from ownership to accessing mobility”, and that young people are less likely to own cars than previously. Hence BMW’s backing for DriveNow, a car club which has established itself in Germany, the US and, more recently, central London.

“There is a fundamental change taking place,” Schmidt tells me, “and if you look at dense urban environments with traffic jams, the solution can’t be to stuff more cars into that environment.” So BMW will sell fewer cars? “We obviously have the cars in DriveNow; usually younger people choose to use these, and later they will move into buying cars. DriveNow is a mechanism to attract young people. It gives us an edge by attracting younger people and bringing them to our brands, and later on they will be interested in buying our vehicles.” That, at least, is what car manufacturers are hoping.

Jean-Philippe Hermine, vice-president of strategic environmental planning at Renault, which has pioneered electric cars, accepts that vehicles are now regarded differently. “The relationship with the car is changing,” he says. “You can question the need to own a car. Some people are looking for more functionality. With our electric cars, where customers can rent the battery, we are to some extent selling mobility and mileage more than a product.”

A Google driverless car on a test drive in Mountain View, California. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

Disruption is coming – especially if Google and Apple bring their experiments with driverless cars to fruition – and there are sure to be casualties, but for the moment the manufacturers are citing the old adage that every crisis is an opportunity. No one wants to be left behind – Autolib’ is poised to come into London with a fleet of electric cars, and will also take over the running of the charging infrastructure in the capital – but eventually consolidation in the car-club market seems inevitable, with a few national players dominating, as with mobile phones. This is an industry in which scale will be everything.

“We’re going to see a very different state of play over the next couple of decades,” says Richard Brown, manager of Ford’s advanced product group, “and the car is clearly going to be part of the internet of things that everybody is talking about. You have to be prepared to embrace the potential disruption and be excited by the challenges that lie ahead. We’ve seen over the past five or 10 years a number of companies that didn’t recognise the changes that were happening around them – and they don’t exist any more. Look at the Kodaks and Nokias of this world. We don’t want to allow ourselves to become a Nokia.”

“People think we love our cars, but do we?” Sampo Hietanen asks me, following a seminar staged by the thinktank Nesta to discuss mobility-as-a-service. “If you get a good enough service-level offer, you will switch,” he says. “If I offer £100 of free use of taxis and guarantee you can do all your trips by taxi, people will say, ‘what do I need a car for?’”

Hietanen argues that in the future, instead of buying cars, we will have a monthly contract with a supplier which meets all our mobility needs. So how long will it be before we see these mobility service providers, as he calls them, start to appear? “I’m expecting the first services at the start of next year,” says Hietanen. “It won’t be long before someone is providing this in London.”

Transport consultant George Hazel, another of the speakers at the seminar, cites a report which anticipates 16 major mobility providers entering the global market. “The idea is that a supplier understands my needs, constantly learns about my profile, and gives me a package according to what I’m prepared to pay.” For mobility suppliers, he says, the attraction will be that once they have you as a customer, they will be able to offer you a range of services in addition to transport.

Hazel’s vision reminds me of a technology consultant I talked to at the SMMT conference, who said that in the future, the car that people drive (or that drives them) will be less valuable than the data derived about the person from the vehicle’s connectivity – where they travel, what they listen to or watch as their driverless vehicle ferries them around, where they take their holidays, even how they sit in the car. He anticipated a time when connected, autonomous cars were given away, just so suppliers could add the recipient to their customer base and access that data. The car as loss leader.

Traffic clogs a main road during Mumbai’s hectic rush hour. Photograph: Rajanish Kakade/AP
Cities of the Future – Without Cars?

On a sparkling spring morning, I meet David Nelson, head of design at architects Foster and Partners, and Bruno Moser, who heads its urban planning division. Increasingly, Foster and Partners is interested in designing whole cities, and in trying to take the sustainability message to the developing world. In Abu Dhabi, it has spent the past 10 years creating Masdar City, an environmentally friendly community which will eventually grow to 100,000 people and in which cars are kept out of the centre, and walking and cycling encouraged.

“We were trying out zero-carbon, zero-waste thinking, and mobility plays a key part in that,” says Nelson. What he calls “carbon cars” are kept at the perimeter, and in the centre Foster and Partners have designed a personal rapid-transit system similar to the pods used at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. The crash of 2007-8 slowed the development of Masdar, and so far only the first two phases have been completed, but Nelson insists the project has been a success, despite criticisms of the slow rate of progress and a lack of affordable housing that means many workers have to commute to the city, undermining some of its key goals.

Foster and Partners is more interested in the way cities are evolving in the developing world than in Europe. Moser thinks the battle against the car has been more-or-less won in the west, where car ownership in cities is lower than in suburban and rural areas. But in the developing world, the opposite is true: city dwellers are wealthier and more likely to own cars, and unless the public can be educated in the merits of sustainability and cities are created that aren’t car-dependent, there will be exponential growth in car ownership and usage.

“If cities in the developing world go through the same cycle that we have in the past 50 years, we have a problem,” says Moser. Nelson believes there is a “great opportunity” for radical new solutions, but worries that “the desire for the middle-class lifestyle, which includes a big car” will get in the way. “If you start out planning with cars in mind, everybody learns from the US, so in the middle of cities you’ll get six-lane roads. The car becomes king and you design for that, and everybody forgets about everything else. That is still happening a lot in Asia, and when we get a project we try to convince everyone that’s not the right thing to do.”

Even in a traffic-clogged, car-fixated megacity such as Mumbai, however, there are glimmers that the anti-car lobby is gaining some traction. Last October, the Equal Streets movement began closing one four-mile stretch of main road there each Sunday morning so that residents of a city desperately short of public space could walk, cycle and play freely. And despite Mumbai politicians’ penchant for building new flyovers, the sheer crowdedness of street life and poor state of the roads are surely a disincentive to owning an expensive “status symbol” car.

The final stop on my car journey is the Future Cities Catapult, which I visit on its first day in new offices on the edge of the City of London – so new the smell of fresh paint is overwhelming. The government has set up these trendily named catapults in a number of key areas – energy, transport, cell therapy, the digital economy – to encourage innovation and act as a bridge between academia and industry. Here, surely, they will have a vision of where we are heading.

“I hope we are at peak car,” says Dan Hill, executive director of futures and best practice, when we settle down to talk in their showroom-cum-lounge. What, even in the developing world? “They have an opportunity to leapfrog and not make the same mistakes we have over the past 50 years,” he says optimistically.

“If the 20th-century approach to solving a mobility problem, just like solving a housing problem, was to build some roads or add some rail, in the 21st century we have to adopt a non-building approach, optimising the existing built-fabric we have,” Hill says. “That’s where the possibility of, say, a shared, autonomous, self-driving car service could radically transform the way people move around a city without building a single road – just as we are already seeing companies like Airbnb transforming the approach to accommodation without building a single hotel. They don’t own any buildings at all, they write code, but they’ve changed the way the fabric of the city is working. Uber doesn’t own any cars, but they’re changing the nature of mobility.”

The mobility revolution is already happening, according to Hill, and can only accelerate. He believes Hietanen’s notion of mobility service providers is likely to become a reality, and agrees with Bayley’s contention that the era of the car is nearly over. “The idea that we use privately owned cars to shift the massive bulk of people around a city seems utterly absurd to me. What a crazy thing to do.”

London’s Edgware Road flyover at its opening in 1967

But what’s the timescale? Hill offers a qualified answer. “It depends on the city. Cities like Helsinki, Copenhagen, Zurich, those small cores with a 2 million exterior [population]; in the next five years I think we’ll be seeing really coherent mobility-as-service offers. They’re already halfway there – they’ve got Zipcar and Uber, really good public transport systems, are very walkable and bikeable, and have a strong public policy on carbon emissions and making a safer city. So I can’t see why in five years we wouldn’t have reached a significant transition point.”

Those, though, are the easy ones. “With somewhere like London, which is 15 Copenhagens in size, it’s really difficult to say. It depends on the decisions that Transport for London makes, and on manufacturers like Ford and BMW extending their mobility experiments. Then with cities like Sydney and San Diego, you are maybe talking 20 or 30 years before you get significant modal shift from private car ownership.

“Once you’ve built all those highways and car parks, it takes a lot of money and time to unpick them. They placed a big bet on cars in the late-1950s, and it’s a long time before you get a chance to make another bet. A city like London, which is a couple of thousand years old and contains many different histories, ends up with a tapestry of multiple side-bets rather than one overweening vision. That’s actually more interesting and more malleable.”

What is evident is that the cities of tomorrow are likely, in effect, to revert to the cities of yesterday: denser, more neighbourhood-based, with everything you need for work and leisure in one district. There will be less separation of functions, less commuting, less travel generally.

“To me, this last 50 or 60 years feels like an anomaly,” says Hill. “If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a non-driver. I think we will look back on this time and say, ‘Wasn’t it odd that we drove ourselves around?’ In the 1920s and 30s, you’d have gone to the butcher on your high street, and a grocery boy (it would have been a boy then) would have delivered the goods to your home on a bike – and they’d have been there by the time you got back.”

In Hill’s view, that age and those services will return. Neighbourhoods and self-sufficient communities will make a comeback in a new era that will be dominated not by the car, but by the smartphone and the network. The commuter is dead. Long live the hipster.

Moss, Stephen, “End of the car age: how cities are outgrowing the automobile” The Guardian, 28 Apr. 2015.