True or not, there is a persistent story about a former Duke of Devonshire who, seeing some silver napkin rings in Asprey’s, asked his companion what they were for.
‘Your grace, in some households they roll napkins inside these rings so that they can be used for a subsequent meal, rather than being laundered every time.’
‘Good heavens. I never knew such poverty existed in England.’
Later, when the duke decided to board a bus for the first time in his life, it is claimed he beckoned to the conductor: ‘27 Eaton Square, please.’
Not such a ridiculous request, in fact. In many countries you will find ‘jitney’ services halfway between buses and taxis. In Soweto you simply stand by the roadside and deploy one of a vast range of hand signals to indicate where you wish to go (so for Orange Farm, say, you hold up your hand as if picking fruit); soon a packed Toyota minivan headed that way will pull over and pick you up.
It is a great shame we can’t introduce something similar in London, simply for the fun of devising hand signals for different parts of the city. For Clapham’s nappy valley, you would intertwine your fingers as though cradling a baby; for Croydon, you would crunch your hair into a grotesque topknot; for Tottenham you could stand in the road and point an imaginary gun at the driver.
For all its craziness the Soweto system does present a vision of the future; in ten years’ time, London buses could operate dynamically, rather than running along set routes. All that is needed is a wider adoption of smart phones and some clever algorithms to match demand with supply. A really smart, redistributive system might allow future dukes to pay a premium for the bus to divert through Eaton Square, while compensating other passengers for the diversion.
(This is less extreme than the system in Indonesia. There a friend of mine, astounded at the low price of his coach ticket, asked the driver, simply out of inquisitiveness, how much it would cost to hire the vehicle for his exclusive use. It was about $25. ‘Very reasonable,’ muttered my friend, his curiosity satisfied. At which point the driver, failing to recognise the theoretical nature of the inquiry, braked, pulled to the side of the road and ejected all the other passengers.)
For another glimpse of future urban transportation, go to Heathrow Terminal 5 and travel to the Business car park on Ultra (www.ultraglobalprt.com), a pod system which entered service a month ago. At each station you use a touch-screen menu to choose your destination (aside from the Terminal itself, there are two destination stations, A and B, at either end of the car park). A driverless pod slides up for your exclusive use. The pod, which is electrically powered, seats up to four and runs on tyres not rails, then shuttles you along a concrete guideway at about 25mph.
This is a British technology, developed partly at the University of Bristol, and can be remarkably inexpensive to construct and run. More important, it looks as cool as hell: in fact the technology’s main antecedents are a Boeing-built system in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the monorail in Dr No.
Something of this kind would be perfect for connecting the linear row of five mainline stations between King’s Cross and Paddington (it is particularly well suited to passengers with luggage). Clearly there is a yawning market gap between £20 taxis and £1 buses which this pod system could fill. But the Heathrow service is free — and, even if you aren’t using the car park, there is nothing to stop you from joyriding on it for the purposes of research.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.