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Speculating on the future of transportation & cities

Two pieces caught my eye in the last week with different looks at the future of transportation and cities. The first, by Leigh Gallager, takes a more nuanced view than is typically done when observing American suburbs. In looking at the question of public transit, Gallager notes this important point:

...This enrages some transit purists. No matter how vibrant a newly developed downtown, if you're not removing the need for a car, you're not really urbanizing the suburbs and making them more livable. Right?

I say no — the mere ability to live closer to your neighbors, to sit on a porch within earshot of the people walking down the street, to walk to a café (whether it's in a shiny new town center or an authentically urban neighborhood) is transformative for cul-de-sac transplants. These urban developments still represent an important step, even if the transit issue isn't 100 percent solved.

I'm bracing myself for angry emails from that statement. But the fact is, most of our country's recent suburban development is in communities where there is little access to public transit — especially rail transit. The dense, transit-friendly suburbs of the Northeast are a fluke; most of America's suburbs were built in the last 50 years, and most commuters who live in them drive themselves to work. That's where the problem is, so that's where the patches are being applied.

It's a critical distinction, and why I made the point about the need for simple walking and biking experiences in my Ted talk, America 6.0. It seems every transportation geek has their mode of choice that "fixes" everything. For transit lovers, it's all about transit. For the techno-fetish crowd, it's driverless cars. For cyclists, it's bikes. 

But it all begins and ends with walking, and walking can work at a wide variety of scales. The issue is that in the car culture that Gallagher references, walking is not even an option today. Just that provision is a leap of enormous proportion, and gets people to a place where they start to love walking, talking and staring.

One other point from Gallagher's piece:

To paraphrase Robert A.M. Stern, suburbs are like cholesterol; there are good ones and bad ones. We doubled down on the bad ones, but the good ones have a lot to offer—including good old urban DNA and lots of public transit. Will Silverman, a senior managing director at Savills Studley in Manhattan and one of my most plugged-in sources, swears that inner-ring, transit-oriented suburbs are going to be the next big thing just for this reason, and insists that they have already started to rise as a separate entity from car-oriented suburbs.

Indeed, this is very true. One of the biggest blind spots for sprawl repair enthusiasts is the lack of differentiation between the original post-WWII suburbs and the generation that started after the interstate system was well underway. They are very, very different creatures. Those older suburbs are ripe for retrofits in *most* cases (not all) and can make very attractive walk/bike-friendly communities. However, once we shifted to the later model, it's exceedingly difficult to justify any serious retrofits. It's one reason I advocate to urbanists to just let that suburbia be the best suburbia it can be, and not expend energies or money urbanizing it. 

Finally today, Neil Salmond takes on the popular topic of driverless cars and robotaxis. Salmond is fully in the camp that's excited about the possibility of this technology for cities:

Many urbanists really hate Google’s self-driving car, because they believe the stories told by the most naive techno-fetishists. Stories like streets full of robocars, safely nose-to-tail at 100mph and happily dancing past eachother at intersections. Stories like extra-exurban commuters happily breakfasting and working from their robotaxi during their two hour commute (and happily working some more on the two hours home).
These are naive because of the incrementalism of technology roll-out and because of those cultural and demographic shifts already underway.

Salmond makes some very good points, for example this:

Apart from the occasional highway convoy, the vision of nose-to-tail robocars is many decades out, if it ever happens at all. This new technology is not cheap, and so the asset will be sweated: robotaxis will not make just two commuting trips per day, and lie idle the rest of the time. They will not make rapid transit redundant either, for simple reasons of geometry and predictability: why wait ten minutes for a more expensive personal taxi, when you can walk to the transit stop and get the next train in two.
Instead robotaxis will be offered as a fleet service. The availability of robotaxis in a community will provide two great boosts to sprawl repairers. Firstly, the cost of insurance for human-driven vehicles within city limits will rise hugely. Secondly, parking lots and travel lanes will far more easily be removed as ownership declines.

So having said all that, I am still extremely skeptical of the upside potential Salmond describes. In a perfect world, yes, this is the big win-win for cities. On-demand taxis means less need for parking and big roads which creates a wonderful virtuous cycle for real estate, walking and urbanity. But... I have to throw some cold water.

I think if you criticize the techno-fetish crowd on the one hand, you can't have it both ways and believe the techno-fetish for the thing you like. If these vehicles become ubiquitous (and I think that's a very big IF) they *could* have some of those benefits. But just as there are city people who dig urban life, there are country and suburban people that despise it. Why would the technology only be adopted by one subset of humanity? Many people choose on purpose today to have a one hour commute to work; why would they not also continue to choose it if the commute now means that they don't have the stressful part of it?

But more importantly, I'm in the skeptic camp that thinks these cars could be the Segway phenomenon, version 2.0. That is, an interesting new technology that doesn't in fact transform anything because human beings don't actually like them, and because they are very expensive.   There are literally hundreds of questions we don't have answers to about what happens when human beings are no longer in control of vehicles. The liability/insurance issues are very complex and could actually hurt driverless cars, not help them. For example, who gets sued when one malfunctions and runs over a child? 

Yes, a subset of urbanites that don't care to drive and use taxis a great deal may enthusiastically adopt these. But how expensive will it be? Do we really believe all the technology will be affordable compared to other ways of getting around? Do we also really believe the technology will always work, since it's highly dependent on GPS and inter-connected networks? What kind of nastiness could hackers inflict upon them and us?

In my opinion, urbanists should be very cautious in assuming nothing but rainbows and unicorns when it comes to this new technology. Uber & Google may indeed be sitting on gigantic amounts of money, but that alone doesn't ensure that their vision will be enthusiastically received especially when it comes to something as fundamental as how we move ourselves around our cities. The big dream of fleets of robotaxis helping city life and real estate sounds exciting. But then, Tomorrowland, the Jetsons and Buck Rogers all sounded really exciting as well. How did those work out?

A great experiment in low-speed rail

My Tedx talk: America 6.0

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