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The future of transit in cities could be point to point mobility that mimics nature

metaloop
The Metaloop would make use of free air space to decongest and decarbonise our cities. Image form Asynsis.

This might sound like something out of a science fiction film but imagine a transport system powered by renewable energy that lets you zip around on autonomous pods above the ground quickly and smoothly. But already this futuristic vision has attracted interest from the likes of the Future Cities Collaborative Research Centre, government agencies and major vehicles manufacturers. Besides, four years ago we all thought flying Ubers were sci-fi too.


Borrowing from nature’s playbook is not new in the design of the built environment but what if we scaled this up so that entire cities could more closely mimic the clever and efficient patterns of nature?

This is the out-there thinking of Nigel Reading, an architect and designer with a sustainability focus who has worked with Arup on the London Overground. Now the design director of Asynsis Architecture + Design, his latest project brings in 20 years of design theory and research into practicality to solve multiple problems facing human societies at once.

His “Metaloop” model could see people moving around cities in the same seamless way blood and nutrients travel around the human body.

Transport systems already somewhat resemble the human respiratory system – main roads are even called “arterial roads”. But these systems are far from efficient and seamless, with traffic jams plaguing Australian cities to the point that “congestion-busting” has become a top priority for the federal government.

Much like a monorail, the Metaloop rises above congestion on the ground in an elegant, plant like structure. There are three layers: the first platform is for walkers, the second for bicycles, and the third for autonomous vehicles capable of taking people anywhere they want to go, at pace.

These travel pods would come with retractable wheels that allow them to provide door to door service, attaching onto the central transit system where ever possible so that they can whiz above the traffic below.

Pedestrians, cyclists and pods would access the platforms on a collection of ramps and stairways, Reading told The Fifth Estate.

“There aren’t stations in the traditional sense, the idea is that the transitions are as fluid and seamless as possible and minimise congestion.

“It’s about bringing the station to you.”

He says the transit system would likely be made from aluminium and steel, and potentially also cross laminated engineered timber.

He foresees former industrial zones repurposed to build the modular poles and bridges that can be assembled onsite. This next generation technology repurposing is already occurring in these abandoned industrial sites, with the old Holden factory in Adelaide now used for home battery assembly.

One benefit of going overhead would lead to low disturbances on the ground, apart from the foundation for each post.

He says the only way to beat this mode of travel way is with flying cars. But with minimal places to land and insurance issues to contend with, it’s unlikely they will become a form of mass transit and are likely to be reserved for the elite, much like helicopters already are.

The model is already attracting support and attention from Australian governments, transport agencies, the Future Cities Collaborative Research Centre and major corporate organisations in the energy and transit sectors, including global market-leading vehicle manufacturers.

A physics theory put into practise 

The Metaloop draws from a new theory in physics called “constructal theory”, which is essentially the idea that self-similar, scale-free “flow” structures we see in nature, such as veins in bodies or water in rivers, are the most efficient ways of managing limited energy and resources.

“We’re just trying to emulate Mother Nature.”

He also says it’s a low risk way of designing infrastructure for quality control.

“Billions of years of evolution can’t be wrong.”

The concept is best explained in Reading’s 2014 TEDx talk in Hong Kong.

More than mobility

Metaloop is not just a transport system. Much like the various interlinked systems of the human body, Reading’s model interconnects the flows of resources and energy into the transit system.

It would be linked up to and powered by renewable energy sources. It will also be hooked into sustainable food production hot spots – Reading envisions precincts with hothouses growing fresh produce – so it can be moved around the city with speed and precision.

“It’s linking people flows, energy flows and resource flows, if you like, combining them into a single multi-modal platform for efficiency.”

He says the model has the potential to solve multiple “wicked problems” at once by simultaneously decarbonising and decongesting our cities.

The plan would be to install the system across the main congestion points in a city at first, such as above high volume roads and train routes, it would then likely expand organically to cope with fluctuations in demand.

Components of the Metaloop model.

The business model

This isn’t the sort of technology that will come together under our existing siloed way of organising our societies. The only way a Metaloop might actually work, Reading says, is if public and private organisations come together in a consortium.

It might start off government-led and commissioned, especially the first few, with green bonds one possible way of financing the projects. There might be a government-owned operator – much like for trains or trams – but private mobility providers such has Uber might actually own and operate the autonomous pods.

The interconnected systems would also rely on food producers and electricity utilities. There would also need to be support from the likes of superannuation funds to make the concept viable at scale.

Reading so far sees five streams of revenue coming in: Fares from the autonomous vehicles, renewable energy generation, food production, advertising revenue and the sale of data.

“We have the advantage of a system that would be highly profitable.”

There could be five streams of revenue coming in: Fares from the autonomous vehicles, renewable energy generation, food production, advertising revenue and the sale of data.

Some of this revenue would go towards creating a more just and equitable society as part of the licensing arrangements. For example, commuters might choose to have 10 cents of their fare go towards building shelters for the homeless.

“So MetaLoop would serve to not only liberate people-goods-clean energy-food resource flows and make our cities safer, more active, less congested, more decarbonised, cleaner, and more connected (while creating more nodal dwell spaces along our high-streets); but it could also help curate and fund a more just, flourishing society,” Reading says.

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Comments

3 Responses to “The future of transit in cities could be point to point mobility that mimics nature”

  • Malcolm James Green says:

    In my opinion it is a really great way to go. If ever there was a way to progressively take the pressure off roadways and turn them mostly into linear parks then this is the natural progression. From the Deakin study referred to above, then the transition will pay for itself, irregardless of the cost. Like solar panels on rooftops, the good deal benefit (versus expensive grid power) of having your own solar panels, even though expensive to procure up front, drives society in a good technical direction. I would love to see this Metaloop (or more generally, suspended monorail ‘personal rapid transport’) go in. I have long been of the opinion that ‘we have to move the transport off the ground’.
    I think there is benefit however of turning the whole approach on its head and (outrageously) I suggest installing the first systems in the regions. For one thing it would be cheaper and easier to build where land is already not so congested with other infrastructure. It would be less controversial in some social ways. The regions can always do with a boost. It would move at least some of the transport up off the road so that the wild animals (kangaroos and wombats for example) can run around safely and live their natural lifestyle. Maximum benefit of the previous idea suggests that this transport would be long-distance as well. For a funding model it would almost certainly require substantial grant support, however it might prove so interesting and attractive that it would go on to pay for itself. Fares would have to be cheap – reasonable, not elitist. Regional places that I’ve considered this transport could go in are a few sites in North Central Victoria, and, most interestingly and outrageously, Hermannsburg to Alice Springs in the NT. That kind of project would ‘break-through’ this technology into existence. It would be a bit like building MONA in Hobart.

  • Hi Safe Streets Campaigner, thanks for your comments, to reply in turn:
    1. On cost, our 2018 Deakin university Masters Engineering proof of concept case study with just 1 transit fare revenue stream yielded an ROI of 20 years, which traffic consultants MVA-Systra informed us was very reasonable over the design-life of MetaLoop.
    We in fact, have 5 revenue streams proposed, so this multi-modal solution should not only be highly profitable – the revenue can be partially allocated to local government spending.
    2. On cars, McKinsey in their Seamless Mobility report, predict only 10% commute share for private cars by 2030 in their Scenario 3.
    https://www.mckinsey.com/Business-Functions/Sustainability/Our-Insights/The-road-to-seamless-urban-mobility
    So why let the likes of Uber exclusively privitise the difference between the current percentage (say – 40-60%), and that 10%?
    If more commuters are using MetaLoop (say 30-40% of daily commutes), it stands to reason that there will be less (increasingly EV) cars on the roads, meaning existing roads will transition to more linear parks and at-grade cycling lanes and pedestrian precincts, with opportunities for contextual place-making at MetaLoop connection nodes.
    McKinsey Mobility team in Frankfurt see MetaLoop as a potential Scenario 4 (Autonomous Shuttles and Robo-Taxis plus longer distance MetaLoop poles and bridges), to also integrate safe, active transit modes and fastest-possible A-B trip times (elimination of road traffic jams and intersections, no bus stops or train stations for 80-90% of typical commute distances), saving us that most precious productivity and wellbeing-enhancing commodity of all, time.
    Please find more on our proposals here: https://medium.com/@ASYNSIS/metaloop-f5caa684d1e9

  • Safe Streets Campaigner says:

    Building bikeways in the air, above the existing polluting traffic has been studied before (in London, for example). It is solution which is often offered so that existing chaotic roads are not ‘disturbed’ – because, you know, entitled motorists.
    It turns out it is extremely expensive, and I think that is recognised here (via PPP suggestions).
    A much more affordable solution is to re-purpose road space equitably. Private motor vehicles receive the lion’s share of road space, while pedestrian movements and bicyclists are left to fight over the scraps.
    This proposal, as well, doesn’t address the current failings of transport policy or implementation, it just moves different mobility into the air, at great expense.
    Of course, I would love a dedicated cycle-way everywhere I want to go, but it shouldn’t cost the entire budget while allowing drivers to maintain their frightening rule over local streets.

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