Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky on the historic spacewalk / NASA TV / AFP / Getty

Volumetric transfer system: the path to real innovation in transport infrastructure

An interview with Vladimir Pirozhkov on the future of transport by Irina Eremenko

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An interview with Vladimir Pirozhkov

An interview by Irina Eremenko

We pay a great deal of attention to transport in contemporary cities. Traffic jams, the problems of public transport, improving transport systems in urban areas - these topics rarely leave the front pages of local newspapers. The reason is obvious: a city’s transport system forms a space in which each citizen will spend many years of his life. We asked the famous expert in the field of industrial and car design Vladimir Pirozhkov how he sees the future of cities in terms of transport infrastructure development. Vladimir graduated from the Sverdlovsk Architectural Institute, where he specialised in "Transportation Design", and from the Art Centre College of Design in Switzerland. In 1994 he joined Citroen, where he worked as a developer on the interiors of several car models. In 2000 he was appointed senior designer at the Toyota design centre in Nice. Back in Russia, Vladimir has founded and headed the Astra Rossa centre of industrial design and innovation. At the moment, our expert is in the process of creating a joint educational centre at the National University of Science and Technology MISIS in collaboration with MIT.
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You grew up in Togliatti. This is a special city in Russia in terms of car production: it has the largest automobile manufacturing plant in the country – AvtoVAZ. In this case, it is interesting to note that the city itself and its transport system were designed in such a way that Togliatti is geographically divided into three separate parts, loosely connected by transport infrastructure. If the city was designed nowadays, with the current achievements in technology, how do you think it would be organised differently?

Yes, you’re right. Togliatti is really divided into three parts : the Komsomolsky, Central, and Avtozavodsky districts. The Avtozavodsky district, was, in my opinion, very well designed: with wide streets, up to 600 metres across, where the width of the roadway can reach 4050 metres. On the one hand, nowadays, when we have more cars than people, this is very much in demand. On the other hand, I can understand the problems of the city authorities who have to maintain such a large amount of space – this is a colossal investment. In Soviet times it was financed by the government, but this is not considered now – it’s all commercialised and is worth a hundred times more. The city was designed, in my opinion, very well.

If I was in process of Togliatti planning now I would pay more attention to the cultural zones of the city… I would have done more “pixel”, would create several centers. This must be done so that people firstly, could freely reach public spaces by foot, and, secondly, want to go there.

If I was involved in the process of planning Togliatti now, I would pay more attention to the cultural zones of the city. As is well known, cities were designed by large “strokes” in Soviet times. The House of Culture, for example, could take up a huge area of the city: Togliatti’s was under construction for over 10 years, and then for another 10 years the interior decoration was carried out. Nowadays I would use more “pixels”, I would create several centres. This must be done so that people, firstly, are able freely to reach public spaces on foot, and, secondly, will want to go there. Because there are no clear centres now, the social sphere of everyday life is underdeveloped. People actually have no place to meet each other, they have to do this either at home, in small groups, or rent some huge urban space. Originally there was no place provided in the city for the creation of cafes or various social events. Commercial premises were also not provided and now this all has its effect on the psychology of the people. Having lived in Europe, and seen those cities that weren’t demolished by the War, I can say that they are much more comfortable and have a balanced centre in which people can always come and spend time comfortably, even if they live outside the city.

In general, I would not create a city along a highway, as these form a bottleneck, which has a very low transport capacity. Originally, the city of Stavropol-​on-​Volga (Togliatti’s early modern predecessor) was built right at the intersection of several historical transportation routes. The city had to be somewhere near. It just needed a few exit roads of an appropriate scale linking it to the federal highway. And this was what was actually done during the city’s construction.

If we want to be powerful, bright and desirable from the urbanist point of view, we must attract foreigners by means of powerful historical places, sites to stick in the memory of visitors and make them to return. For example, any pub that has stood there for 400 years. as they have in England. This would be an attraction point – a “social magnet”. If I designed the city, I would like it to have some kind of central, active part, but at the same time a residential area in which people would want to settle down.

Courtesy of Vladimir Pirozhkov

Courtesy of Vladimir Pirozhkov

You have being working in Europe for the leading car production companies for more than 20 years. Do these companies understand and forecast the future of transport infrastructure in general? Are some of them coming into the urbanistics area with the aim of developing urban service infrastructure in general, by offering solutions to improve the quality of life? What do you think, for example, about the “Harmonious Beijing” project, which proposes to create a transport infrastructure that will move cars by itself, thereby reducing the amount of harmful emissions into the environment?

First of all, ”Harmonious Beijing” is a student project; such projects are often carried out within the framework of educational programmes for designers, architects and urbanists. Implementation of such abstract projects is always a big problem. Therefore, the whole system is usually built based on the existing infrastructure of the city by developing it. For example, the road traffic system evolved from the rules of movement at mediaeval tournaments: in the right hand – a spear, in the left – a shield.

Any new transport system will take the previous one as the starting point for its development. For example, if we were to create a transport system of movement in three dimensional space, it is likely that it would be based on the previous one – the flat plane system. This scheme is very similar to the history of mobile phones system development, which uses a similar principle to wired telephones: to place the “box” to your ear, because there is existing infrastructure: hearing, speech organs. It’s the same here, where first of all we consider the fuel and housing infrastructure. When planning to build transport infrastructure in any city you need to understand how this city operates, its organs of speech, hearing, its waste disposal system. After that, natural routes of movement of people appear and this then forms a road. One might fantasise about a suspended road over the VDNKh exhibition park, but it wouldn’t work, because such road would be unnatural.

In my opinion, moving in a plane is inefficient. It is perfectly illustrated by the ants and bees; they just like people are forming the social communities. In this case the ants move in the plane and their habitat is 1 kilometer, and bees have volumetric system of movement, their habitat is 300 kilometers. That says it all.

In my opinion, moving along a plane is inefficient. This is perfectly illustrated by ants and bees; they form social communities just like people. In this case the ants move in a plane and their home range measures 1 square kilometre, while bees have a volumetric system of movement, their range reaching 300 square kilometres. That says it all. The possibility of organising an effective transport system grows significantly thanks to the use of a volumetric system of movement. The prevalence of planar movement arises naturally from basic things: the force of gravity and our inability to rise up into the air. But now the technology is already on such a level of development, that we can try to create a system in which we will move in space and not across the plane. The same thing happened with phones: previously we called wherever the wire led, and now we’re going to where the road goes. We need to create roadless transport, which can move in space. This is “Freedom 2.0”. If you can move around in space from point A to point B on several levels – that would be the most natural way to move. The sky consists of several levels – echelons – levels of moving, while the road is just one level – and there’s a traffic jam. You don’t need to go around the city, you can fly over it.

Courtesy of Vladimir Pirozhkov

Courtesy of Vladimir Pirozhkov

You are putting in doubt the future of cars for the roads? How long will the concept of road cars exist? What will happen to the contemporary concept cars, such as unmanned vehicles?

I realised at some point, like many other professional designers who have been engaged in the business of inventing new technologies for a long time, the absurdity of the car, because we have been building cars and developing the same piece of metal which was created by Daimler and Benz for the last 100 years, giving it many different forms. I think it’s a purposeless modernisation of previous achievements. But the idea of the car for road travel will last for some time, as heavy loads are still very hard to tear away from the ground. Until we will invent antigravity or something like that.

Unmanned vehicles are very promising, because “Why do we need a carriage driver, if the horse knows where to go?” The level of safety in using robotic systems for transportation is 1,000 times higher. I believe that heavy freight can be fully replaced with unmanned technology, and this will form self-​adaptive infrastructure. From the urbanist point of view, to improve the quality of life in the city, we must deal with human things. I believe that the work of the Metro driver is not human. This task can easily be handled by a robot. Human work should lead us towards the development of our intellectual abilities.

Professionals understand design not simply as a way of working with form and colour, but as a tool of a much higher abstract level. How can a designer be involved in the process of improving the quality of the urban environment? How must he act in a system where there are also urban planners, architects and urbanists? What role in this process can and should a designer play?

In the first place, for really young designers – it’s about shape and colour. Experienced professionals can already deal with this and want to think somehow broader. Integrating into the existing system is very difficult all over the world, not only in Russia. Moscow is difficult in this sense. If you know how to and want to set up, for example, a system of comfortable bus stops, you will need to go through all the paper arrangements dealing with the transport department of the Moscow government, and in the end you will not succeed. Because you just don’t have access to the people who make the decisions. They have already made all the decisions before and have already found the money for it. A designer, for example, could offer to review the trolleybus transport system. Now trolleys are unreasonably large and occupy 50 square metres of city space, taking into account safety distances from other vehicles and turning space, and they typically carry a mere 1 or 2 people. The huge size of the trolleybus is a echo of the USSR. The potential size of the trolleybus or wireless electrobus comes under the jurisdiction of the factory’s senior manager. You know his name and are forced to communicate with him in person. But in the end the potential decision would be to replace the huge trolley buses with compact electrobuses, which are widely represented in the foreign market. Here we have no place for industrial design anymore. When a country doesn’t have competitive industry, neither does it have industrial design. When industry develops again, then this conversation would be relevant and the designers will become an essential part of industry. In my unbiased opinion, Moscow needs to be decentralised, we need to make a few city centres, creating comfortable pedestrian zones – magnets, to stop people using a single central point for walking. These areas have to compete among themselves. Such “sub-​cities” might have their own special centres, for example, railway stations could be transformed into cultural hubs, as all traffic in such cities is concentrated there. We need to implement the concept of cultural polycentricism, we can not reduce everything to Red Square.

Courtesy of Vladimir Pirozhkov

Courtesy of Vladimir Pirozhkov

Let us suppose the concept of 3D transport – a flying car – has become dominant, how do you think this would change the driving culture in general? Will it development in line with the cult of the car – the car as a “second home”, a unique space, such it was in the USA in the 1960s?

A very important point here, which only few people are enough courageous to talk about, there is still the Northern Sea Route, where we have no transport infrastructure at all. There will be very crowded soon, because of the rapidly melting Arctic snow and “winter roads”, turning land into a swamp. It is impossible to drive there, you need to fly. This is still our territory and our jurisdiction. Still ours… 3D transport and self-​efficent households form the strategy of monitoring and developing our own territory. And not ply ours.. We can get a very competitive product from it.

There would be fundamental changes, things that will fundamentally change the world. Nowadays, the car is a real extra room in your apartment. This is your living space, in which you move from home to office. Suppose 3D transport could transfer a part of your home, a whole room, for instance. Let’s assume that this is a modular room, so we can fly back and move a second room. So you can live wherever you want. And here we go to a new urban level. This is the so-​called self-​sufficient household. Your home may be completely self-​sufficient and work on the self-​energy or solar or underground energy sources and could be located wherever you want. Such developments already exist. They will be produced on a mass scale – it is only a question of time. In 30 years, the world will have approximately 10 billion people and 70% of them will live in cities, with 50 % of the population forming a middle class. We will need vast natural resources for the maintenance of so many people. Now we have begun work on small motors to process our household waste. So many people requires so much energy. If we can create such things, then we will be able to live and survive in those vast areas of our country that we have not yet researched and inhabited. If we don’t do that, these territories will be developed by someone else. 3D transport allows us to reach any point on the globe, unlike the 2D form. This will be the next level of freedom, which we are so enamoured of! A very important point here, which only a few people are courageous enough to make, is that we still have the Northern Sea Route, where we have no transport infrastructure at all. This will be very crowded soon, because of the rapidly melting Arctic ice opening up the sea lanes and turning existing northern road systems into swampland. It is impossible to drive there, you need to fly. This is still our territory and our jurisdiction. Still ours… 3D transport and self-​efficient households provide the strategy for monitoring and developing our own territory. And not only ours.. We can get a very competitive product out of this. I think now we need to look very carefully at certain promising developments that could make Russia competitive with the other countries that are moving toward global leadership. And what about design? It could be done beautifully. Trying from the very beginning. So that OUR children will live better in OUR land than ourselves!