While the Government delays, cities are taking radical steps to cut carbon

Cities are where the biggest experiments can take place; look to them to see the future of the UK.

Our cities are the R&D facility for the country. From 4G rollout to community energy, they let us experiment with what’s possible. This is useful, because we’ve just agreed to change everything. The recent Energy Bill accepts how inevitable a low carbon future is for the UK. It also guarantees the money to deliver it on time – all we have to do now is actually do it.

Of course, some don’t seem to realise this. Some ministers hang desperately onto a gas over renewables strategy, like a hipster to a mini disc player, convinced its time will come again. No evidence will dissuade them back into reality. This wouldn’t be a problem, but the indecision and delay they introduce makes it harder to ensure that the UK will get the maximum benefit from a low carbon future – to own the patents, build the factories and get exporting to the others following behind. Luckily, we don’t need to wait for national government to get its story straight, because our cities are set to leap ahead.

A city has traditionally been something that demands a lot from a country and gives back money and jobs. London has around the same working population as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, and so it soaks up more electricity than any of those nations. Without freight coming in from the rest of the world, it would run out of food in four days. Sure, cities pay for this stuff, but it’s the rest of the country that has put up with its infrastructure: the power stations, water reservoirs, and industrial waste facilities all put into the countryside to serve the cities. However, this is changing.

The density of the population and the buildings make for a unique testing ground for the new kind of infrastructure we’re developing - the low carbon, resource efficient approaches to heating and power generation, transport and waste management. They all work best if done where the demand is greatest, and that means at the city scale.

This is what Green Alliance’s new report argues – cities are morphing themselves and what they do ahead of the rest of the country and they are well placed to get the economic reward for doing so. The recent city deals process, initiated by the Cabinet Office transfers new powers, control over funding and approaches to financing to the cities. The first eight cities have thought about what this means to reverse employment trends and attract inward investment which is why most have used their deals to grow their low carbon economy.

Newcastle is going for £0.5bn of investment in offshore energy, bringing eight thousand jobs. Liverpool plans to accelerate £100m in wind and offshore energy, bringing three thousand jobs to the area. Manchester is using its ambitious emissions reduction targets to attract an additional £1.4bn into the UK’s economy and Birmingham has secured a £3m injection to its housing retrofit programme.

Many of these projects, which are central to how our country will work in the future, are already real in the cities. London will have 1,300 different electric vehicle charging points by next year and, in the capital, a Prius seems a more common sight that an Escort. Islington is rolling out council-owned Combined Heat and Power to 700 homes, a power station set up not miles away, but amongst the people that will benefit, protecting them from soaring bills. Meanwhile, Birmingham council is doing the same, trying to reduce the energy it imports every year at a cost of £1.5bn and replace it with energy they make themselves. In the centre of the city, on Broad Street, Birmingham’s CHP serves the ICC, the town hall, the new library and local hotels and theatres. Nottingham too, aims to double its district heating network in five years.

This is where the future is happening. It proves that green infrastructure is the model that keeps costs down for the public and profits up for businesses. All we need now is for Westminster government to realise this. As it plans a big push on renewing our national infrastructure, it should learn from and work with our cities, who are demonstrating that a modern, sustainable approach, employing ideas that reduce energy, reuse waste and simplify our public transport, will bring the biggest rewards.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.