03 January 2012

Fear This Future - Bikes Don't Exist

I've been puzzling over this most of the day today. A series of animated films from some group called Forum for the Future and their 'Megacities On The Move' project.

Four scenarios of how we'll live our lives in 2040. I've had to watch each film twice - which is rather painful because they're not that good - in order to figure out what the hell these people are on about. I've decided to slap this into the Car Industry Strikes Back category for reasons that I'll get to shortly.

What I think I've figured out is that two of these scenarios are meant to be 'positive' and two are meant to be 'negative'. The first film, above is entitled 'Communi-city'. In this scenario: "The world has turned to alternative energy, and transport is highly personalised with a huge variety of transport modes competing for road space." Apparently.

Have a look at it. Is it just me or does it look like the streets of most cities today - just with more gadgets? Just look at that traffic congestion.

Already at 01:26 into the film public transport is soundly ridiculed. The 'character', a Brit named Vee, remarks: "Public transport?! Haha. That's sooo old-fashioned. Hardly anyone uses THAT anymore. We haven't put money into trains or buses for years!"

Oh. Alright then. I think I'm getting a sense of who these people are.

At 03:00 something happens which is downright shocking. Vee is in a hurry and, in her car, she smashes into a cyclist. Her response?

"Oh, sorry! Gosh, are you alright?! No, I can't stop... I'm really sorry!" Then she continues, speaking to you and me... "Oh, I forgot some people still ride a bike. Funny how many people still don't have at least a little mini electric scooter..."

Yes. She actually said that. It's actually a line in a film made by an alleged NGO with the tagline "action for a sustainable future."

It's as stupid as can be, yes, and completely shits on bicycles as transport now and in 2040. It is supposed to serve, however, a weak dramaturgical purpose in that she is hurrying off to Date Night and she ends up on a blind date, sitting with the same cyclist, all bandaged up.

Which is, of course, no excuse for including a motorist performing a hit and run on a person on a bicycle. And then ridiculing bicycles after that.

If you watch all four films - and survive - you'll notice that bicycles are shockingly absent from these peoples' futuristic scenarios.

In the other of the two 'positive' scenarios, called Renew-abad - described as "the world has turned to alternative energy and high-tech, clean, well-planned transport helps everyone get around." - Vee rides a bike to the station but the whole point of the film is her getting all excited about the latest eco-car imported from... Morocco. Interestingly, the fake newspaper headlines at the beginning of the film include "China, Mexico, Turkey to Hunt for More Lithium". Lithium for batteries is and will be an issue in the future if all these e-contraptions gain purchase. And, as we saw in the first film, thse coal or nuclear-powered electric vehicles still kill and injure bicycle users.

The films are devoid of humans, featuring only futuristic vehicles and the tiresome voice of Vee, trying to explain all this to us. All four of them are spooky and you really sense that Big Business will feature prominently in our future - selling us all these new vehicles and technology.

In the film called Sprawl-ville - "The city is dominated by fossil fuel-powered cars.The elite still gets around, but most urban dwellers face poor transport infrastructure" - we see Vee's husband on a - shockhorror - bicycle. She tells us with thinly veiled disgust: "I HATE seeing him on that thing". She claims it's 'dangerous' but you know what? I don't take peoples' personal perception about safety to heart - it's PERSONAL - so I'm sure not going to take it from a cartoon character.

I really would like to see what the obesity levels are in these cities - all four of them. And the level of lifestyle illnesses and their effect on public health spending. Can't see how they are much improved from today.

Planned-opolis is another 'negative' film as far as I can gather. "In a world of fossil fuels and expensive energy, the only solution is tightly planned and controlled urban transport."

This one is just weird. Vee asks if we have our calorie card with us because... she's ordered a driverless taxi for us. How will that help us burn calories?! We're told that in Planned-opolis, there are few cars in the city centre, but only the rich own them. Then comes a plug for electric bikes - "the easiest way to get around our neighourhood..."

A densely-populated, car-free neighbourhood and yet no bicycles? Does anyone really believe that would happen? Have these people never been to Copenhagen or Amsterdam? Note the hunched-over cyclists aren't even pedalling. There goes the health benefits of cycling, not to mention the social anthropology of urban cycling relating to liveable cities.

Watching this one, you figure out the agenda for this project and it is an arch-Conservative one. Big business benefits in the 'positive' scenarios and suffers in the others. In Sprawl-ville - the anarchy scenario - there is chaos everywhere but Vee is the noble entrepeneur who just wants to make a buck. In Planned-opolis you feel as though they're going after the Scandinavian model - 'tightly-controlled' cities are, apparently, claustrophobic for business.

In their .pdf about the project, bicycles are mentioned just eight times - half of them plugging e-bikes as the only alternative in the future.

In the future scenarios of Forum for the Future the bicycle plays no role at all. Which, in many ways, makes it difficult to take them seriously. Indeed, looking at the appendix, there are no bicycle-mobiliy experts involved at all.

So. Car Industry Strikes Back? How's that? Well, what is really not that surprising is that this project is partly funded by - guess who? The FIA Foundation. The international automobile association who are quite possibly the greatest adversary for urban cycling and liveable cities. We know what they're up to in Barcelona and we know how they promote helmets.

Everything they do is to ensure that the automobile remains the standard in our socities and everyone else - on foot, on scooters or on bicycles - must be tamed and taught submission to the mighty automobile - for fear of a return to The Anti-Automobile Age in this new century with focus on demotorization and liveable cities.

Should we fear these future scenarios? I fear so.

ADDENDUM: 05.01.2012
Forum for the Future have responded to this article in the comments. I've also included the text here:

Hi Mikael,

I would like to respond to your comments and explain how Forum for the Future works in more detail, which hopefully will show that in fact, we share a common agenda.

Scenarios are not positive visions or predictions, but rather thinking tools meant to open up the debate. The very point of using them is to depict - in a plausible but challenging way - what the future could look like across a number of different directions. Often, that future is quite unpleasant, and our intention is to communicate just that, in order to get people to wake up to the fact that business as usual is not going to lead to sustainable outcomes.

And so it is that with this project, the vignettes you reference in your blog post are meant to make the point that a future in which there are low levels of walkability and a poor cycling environment is not necessarily a future we want. So, in other words, in Communi-city, the road congestion and lack of attention to public transport is really a warning, not a vision for the kind of future we want. And I think you’ll agree that with the challenges facing our cities today and in the future - particularly the rapidly-growing megacities of the developing world - that warning is both very real and very necessary.

No one scenario is ever meant to be entirely positive or entirely negative. For example, there are also many elements of Communi-city which are meant to be appealing, such as the strong sense of local community, the high levels of grassroots innovation, and the scaled-up use of alternative energy.

The idea is that people engage with the scenarios to understand which elements of each they believe are desirable, sustainable, and will lead us to a better future. This can then begin to form a vision of what we should work towards, and this vision will necessarily contain a combination of elements from different scenarios.

With Megacities on the Move, we piloted the scenarios in city-based workshops in Istanbul and Mumbai, where a variety of stakeholders – including cycling activists – used them in strategic planning sessions to consider what kinds of solutions would get us to where we need to be. Which definitely in both cities included ideas for better cycling and walking infrastructure.

Moreover, it is not true that bicycles do not appear in the scenarios. They may not feature as prominently as they should in our short films, but that is the limitation you often run into when trying to condense something rather complex into a 2-minute video clip. For a more detailed account of different elements of urban mobility, you should read the full set of scenarios, which you can find on our website.

You are absolutely right in suggesting that Forum for the Future, and these films, have an agenda. As a charity, our mission is to create a sustainable world. And we often do so by using scenarios to challenge people’s thinking – pushing it wider out of the box, and further out along the time horizon.

We are independent, but our approach is very much to work with a range of businesses and organisations to do this, rather than work against them. In choosing the partners we did for this project, we looked for not ‘big business money’ as you suggest, but a range of organizations which represent different approaches to mobility. EMBARQ is a sustainable transport NGO which does on-the-ground project implementation in cities. Vodafone is a company which seeks to use its products to try to offset physical travel demand. And the FIA Foundation’s (this is the foundation, not the automobile association) focus is on promoting road safety.

We are always working on improving the way we frame and communicate our work, so we will bear in mind your comments and those of others on your blog to do this. But I do wish that you had taken the time to read the work in detail and perhaps engage us directly in a debate, as I believe we have a common agenda and one that we could perhaps work together on.

Find out more here: http://www.forumforthefuture.org/project/megacities-move/overview