Hailing the flying cab

The Fifth Element's flying taxis

The Fifth Element's flying taxis

Was The Fifth Element really 15 years ago? But that means I must be at least humphty-humph years old – and yet we still have no flying taxis to ride around in. Bah.

This never-closing gap between our transport aspirations and reality was quite clear at the launch of Sense and the City last week at the London Transport Museum. Apparently 60 years ago we thought everyone would have their own private helicopter by now. Instead, we struggle around London on often incompatible networks of underground trains and buses, or aboard bicycles that are somehow meant to share lanes with taxis and motorbikes. Planners contend with retro-fitting a system to a city laid out long ago – leading to madnesses like the cycle path-to-nowhere which has been the subject of discussion on a local forum in Chiswick recently (pic below).

So what’s the answer? According to the exhibition, we’re in a new age now – where the availability of information is going to change everything. Soon, everyone will have an iPhone or an iPad through which to access the data we need to make the system work. Or for those without, a rather more democratic system of smart, interactive signage has been proposed by one of the Royal College of Art students who have contributed to the show.

And certainly the truckloads of transport data can be turned into the most incredible visualisations – the number of planes taking off, the number of buses running from dawn to dusk, the number of cyclists being scraped off motorcyclists’ front wheels (not that one, maybe). Tweeting, networking, geotagging, crowdsourcing, the whole show celebrates the idea that we have each now become a datapoint that will assist other datapoints in knowing where to go and how to get there.

Barclay bikes being docked, by Adrian Short

Barclay bikes being docked, by Adrian Short

In the way that only a sci-fi fan would, I hope that this is an accurate reflection of how things are going to develop. I hope we will have greener, cleaner choices, made possible by new ideas and a new kind of data-democracy that helps everyone. The reality, as so often, may be different – especially as those in charge seek to pay for new developments. At the finale of Sense and the City is a new-fangled Bus Stop of the Future by Clear Channel, which showed an advertisement for a forthcoming blockbuster – but not, as my companion said ‘when my bus is actually going to come’.

Sense and the City, London Transport Museum, until 18 March 2012

 

Mosaic of the exhibition opening by Greg Mileham

Mosaic of the exhibition opening by Greg Mileham

Read more musings on technology on my Powering Up blog.