Milton Keynes: half a century of green innovation

Love it or loathe it, no one can accuse Milton Keynes of maintaining the status quo.

The town, which last month celebrated its 50th anniversary, has been at the forefront of many innovations, including the development of sustainable building design and energy efficiency.

Milton Keynes has also become famous for its grid transport system, cycle ways and green spaces. Its sustainable credentials have been further enhanced with recent developments around electric vehicles and driverless cars.

And the council’s recently published Plan:MK local plan will play a key part in its ‘vision to maintain a strong, sustainable economy that includes everybody’, according to the cabinet member for responsible for place, Cllr Liz Gifford.

The chief executive of the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP), Stephen Catchpole, says Milton Keynes has always been a pioneering city with a commitment to the environment.

‘From day one it proved that, with its vision of green space in an urban setting and has continued over the past 50 years,’ adds Mr Catchpole. ‘It has become a modern, vibrant city which has led the way in the green economy, both locally and nationally.

Milton Keynes has always embraced change and dared to be different,’ he says. ‘It has become a technological pioneer, as demonstrated by projects such as trials of autonomous vehicles, which could change the way all of us get around in years to come. It is a smart city in every sense of the word.’

‘Living laboratory’

In recent years, the MK:Smart programme, which has been led by the Open University in Milton Keynes, has played a key role in helping develop smart and sustainable solutions to support economic growth in the town.

Alan-Miguel Valdez, a research associate at the Open University and a member of the Smart Cities in the Making project, says Milton Keynes has become ‘something of a living laboratory for exploring he use of smart technology to improve traffic flows’.

In particular, the MK:Smart programme has been looking at how large-scale data and analytics can be used to make towns and cities more efficient.

For example, the MotionMap smart transport application draws on data from several networks of sensors, connecting users to real-time information about the movement in the city such as routing, public transport timetables, delays and real-time indicators of pedestrian and vehicular density and activity,’ says Mr Valdez.

‘Data captured through the application and the related sensing infrastructure will feed back into city dashboards and inform the traffic models used by planners.

MotionMap is considered necessary for the long-term transport strategy of the city and is part of the 2050 strategy, as it is expected to evolve into a widely used application that can support seamless multimodal travel throughout the city.’

Mr Valdez says the Open University also pioneered a number of low-energy housing developments in the 1970s, which have led to higher building standards and improved methods for calculating energy demand for the rest of the country.

Milton Keynes hosts a range of advanced energy installations, such as the Falcon smart grid, an extensive electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and a district heating system,’ he adds.

Energy efficiency is also central to the vision of the smart city enacted through the MK:Smart programme. For example, the “energy team” at MK:Smart is collecting data about driving behaviour of electric vehicles (EV) in Milton Keynes to understand their real-world energy demand and develop strategies to minimise electricity consumption.

One such strategy is the coupling of EV charging with solar electricity generation, making use of local battery storage within the home. This includes homes that are pioneering domestic energy storage, where there is potential to store photovoltaic electricity for subsequent use.’

The cycling challenge

But what of Milton Keynes’ network of cycle paths? While the creation of such paths was revolutionary when Milton Keynes was first designed, they have not necessarily triggered a massive shift from car journeys to bicycles in the town itself.

According to Cycling UK, the proportion of adults living in Milton Keynes who cycle most days (i.e. five days a week) for utility purposes (not for leisure) is just 1.7%, only slightly above the England-wide average of 1.5%.

Milton Keynes’ famous “redway” cycle track network was a well-intentioned attempt to make cycling a safe and attractive option for all local journeys,’ says the charity’s policy director, Roger Geffen.

Unfortunately though, it failed to lived up to these expectations, because the cycle tracks were in competition with a high-capacity road network that still made car travel safer and quicker.

The lesson from the Netherlands and other cycle-friendly countries is that, if you really want people to enjoy the health, environmental and other benefits of cycling for day-to-day journeys, then it needs to be easier and at least as safe as getting around by car,’ adds Mr Geffen.

For now, all eyes are on the work in Milton Keynes to promote autonomous and electric vehicles. Last year, Milton Keynes Council was awarded Go Ultra Low City status by the government, which will help increase the use of electric vehicles in the town. And February this year, Chargemaster announced plans to open the UK’s first all-electric car dealership in Milton Keynes.

We’ve got an awful lot of infrastructure ready for these vehicles,’ says the council’s head of transport innovation, Brian Matthews.

The number [of electric vehicles] are growing rapidly,’ he adds. ‘We’ve had 200% increase in numbers in the last 12 months, but it’s still only a small proportion of the total vehicle fleet.

Our aim is to use our infrastructure and run a programme along that to unblock some of the barriers for people to use and buy electric vehicles.

We are also exploring the challenges if there is a mass update of these vehicles. We are creating two filling station networks, just for electric vehicles, and we are testing some of the latest technology for rapid charging,’ adds Mr Matthews.

We’re trying to predict and evaluate what might be needed in the future.’

Main image: Destination Milton Keynes

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Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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