I look outside my window and see an elderly lady and a child enjoying a colorful story book, laughing and playing on their way to school in a small floating self driven pod. Quality time on the road! The rest of the view is nothing less than spectacular – I see lots of green, people enjoying outside, and very few cars. My hyper loop train is hovering above all this…the sky is clear and the air is fresh…and today is going to be a good day!!
Does the above account seem like a description from a futuristic movie? Or how about a diary entry or a social media update in the year 2030?
Future is fascinating. Predicting it on the basis of facts, data, trends, projections, forecasts, etc. is always accompanied by an imagination which is exciting and different for different people. How would cities of the future be? Innumerable theories, books and research talk about urbanization of the future and its components. The silver screen is or cinema has extensively visualized and represented the future for us. With the world talking about faster, cheaper, smoother, quieter and safer mode of transportation, we see the writers, artists, planners, architects and movies talking about reaching the zenith of technological innovations.
Movies play a powerful, though rarely recognized role in how we understand urbanism. Whether they are set in a drivable suburb or walkable urban places, they leave strong imprints on the perceptions of the viewers.
In high density areas, mobility becomes an important dimension in urban transit. Urbanization has been one of the contemporary dominant processes as a growing share of the global population lives in cities. Considering this trend, urban transportation takes the foremost importance to support the passengers and freight requirements of large urban agglomerations. In the last fifty years we have seen great advances in urban transportation and most of these were just ‘fictional imagination’ about a decade ago either in a futuristic sci-fi book or a movie. Remember the childhood cartoon series of “The Jetsons”? Science fiction movies of all eras found that ‘modes of transport’ are a powerful way to depict a ‘futuristic’ society on the screen. Many of these ‘silver-screen’ modes of transport have become a reality for e.g. the Japanese bullet trains, electric sports cars, like Tesla, to passenger flights into space on Virgin Galactic, we can see societies embrace faster, more efficient and sustainable transportation systems.
Image Source : http://hanna-barbera.wikia.com/wiki/The_Jetsons
A city with minimal car culture and high public transit networks, wherein, despite the economic status of the people, they use public transport. ‘HER’ – A film set in Los Angeles , projects a future L.A. which is denser, with dominant public transport networks. Though the traffic has not been removed all over, specks of automobiles move along ribbons of highway. The movie shows abandoned parking lots and traffic cones in several scenes. In the beginning itself, the lead character Theodore Twombly uses a warmly lit, spotless metro to commute to work along with everybody else. The prominence of public spaces through which Theo moves through cannot go unnoticed. The metro stations through which Theo weaves, and the turnstiles through which he exits, are original to L.A.’s current light rail. So, the silver screen shows a carless city that too – Los Angeles – the city of cars and highways!!!.
While walking and public spaces dominate the screen in ‘HER’, the exact opposite is shown in the the famous movie ‘The Blade Runner’. Blade Runner, by Ridley Scott, is also set in Los Angeles, and shows the city in the year 2019. It is so overcrowded that the primary form of transportation are flying machines, driven by drivers wearing helmets and each one is controlled by air traffic control. Everybody owns a private flying car, even the fast food vendors. The most fascinate ing theories of futuristic transportation on screen go the ‘air way’. From the popular cartoon, The Jetsons, in the 1960’s, the idea of cars flying in the sky have been there for decades in the cinemas.
The walkable nature of the city projected in the movie ‘HER’. Image Source: Streets.mn
How wonderful would it be to buy Chinese food from your favorite vendor, from the window on the 108th floor? Fascinating as that seems, the life on the street, at the ground level is not that soothing. The movie has shown the results of such modes of transportation. The heavy gases have settled down, the lower floors of the entire city have been abandoned and dilapidated. The city is always dark,, dusty and polluted as a result of emissions by the flying cars. The buildings are designed to take the flying cars onto their terraces. A similar concept can be seen in Luc Besson’s, ‘Fifth Element’, which not only depicts flying cars but also flying eateries serving door to door. The city forecasted, has gone vertical and the only transportation system is flying cars and cabs. The street level has been shown as polluted with only criminals and illegal activities.
There are many innovations in the field of flying cars and pods. A company called Terrafugia, is working on concepts where they are developing flying cars which won’t even need trained pilots. Terrafugia’s main control will take care of everything from observing flight paths to regulate space restrictions and air traffic.
Terrafugia concept flying car. Source: http://www.terafuggia.com
The fact that urban areas are going to be denser and higher has been established in most of the movies. ‘Minority Report’ suggests a rather clever solution -vertical transportation. In a world with limited space, the vertical walls of the buildings have been utilized for transportation. The entire city looks woven by the roads. The landscaping on the sides of the roads has been taken by the balconies in the vertical transportation. In reality too, many concepts for vertical transportation have been tried Architect Chistopher Christophi and Lucas Mazarrasa’s Vertical Hyper Speed Train Hub project is one such idea. It reduces the footprint of the major public transportation hubs and utilizes the area for public spaces.
Flying cars as depicted in the movie ‘ Blade Runner ’. Source : abovetopsecret.com
With the increased number of vehicles on the road and the need for speed and also for the unending quest of humans for luxury in everything, in future we won’t even have to drive the vehicles ourselves. With Google already working and experimenting on automatic cars, it is not far into the future that we will be having fully automatic cars on the road. In ‘Demolition Man’, they show an automated car designed for safe roads, which were completely controlled by machines. This car stops functioning in one of the scenes where, John Spartan, played by, Sylvester Stallone, is chasing a criminal. The car went and hit a fountain and post collapse, a safety form was released from the car for the drivers protection. ‘Demolition Man’ was based in a city which was insulated from crime and devoid of accidents where automated cars would function well.. But, in today’s chaotic urban scenarios, it seems impossible although Google ensures, accident free automated cars. Automated cars can also be seen in the movie Minority Report.
Looking into the evolution of transportation, it can be understood that the Unique Selling Point of any technological innovation is ‘Speed and Distance’, from the innovation of wheels to present technologies. The present technological advances ensure that the effort to create the ultimate transportation system for the city will continue. The silver screen provides a three dimensional idea of how a concept of transportation technology can shape a city or how the development of a city and society may lead to adoption of different options of transportation systems. The present emphasis is on public transport as it is the practical, feasible, faster and safer method to transport huge numbers of people from one place to another.
Though everybody understands the importance of public transportation, the idea of having a personal mode of transport doesn’t take a back seat in any of the cases. The idea of owning a car and enjoying a ride whenever one wants is extremely tempting and is equated to achieving something in life. Of course, all daily needs and purposes won’t be solved by public transportation only, there is a need to come up with innovative ideas where in the city wisely develops a comprehensive system of public transport and private transportation system. From flying cars to vertical trains to floating cars to autonomous vehicles to hyperloop, the futuristic transportation system is going to be a wild ride.
Popular cinema provides ideas about futuristic urban places and depict the city to be utopian or dystopian. This seems to be huge challenge in the hands of the makers of today’s cities to understand the present needs and demands to come up with transportation systems which would be the backbone of development and more close to the utopian concepts of cinema than the dystopian ones!!!.
In a recent newspaper I read about the first self-driven cars having been tested and launched in Singapore, which goes on to show that advanced transportation systems won’t remain captured on silver screen – they will become a reality sooner or later…
Contributed by Vidya Anil
Vidya Anil is an Architect and Urban Professional, based in Chennai.