Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities – Nick Bilton


I wish journalists would talk to futurists when waving their hands about the future. Here’s a piece about the future of cities via-a-vis driverless cars that does not even try to correlate this trend with other salient ones, like millenenials’ dislike of cars, the first ever decrease in driving, and the hollowing out of suburbia. As a result, this piece is all over the place. And note that the sources I am using are often the NY Times itself, where Bilton works.

Nick Bilton, Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities

As scientists and car companies forge ahead — many expect self-driving cars to become commonplace in the next decade — researchers, city planners and engineers are contemplating how city spaces could change if our cars start doing the driving for us. There are risks, of course: People might be more open to a longer daily commute, leading to even more urban sprawl.

That city of the future could have narrower streets because parking spots would no longer be necessary. And the air would be cleaner because people would drive less. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration30 percent of driving in business districts is spent in a hunt for a parking spot, and the agency estimates that almost one billion miles of driving is wasted that way every year.

“What automation is going to allow is repurposing, both of spaces in cities, and of the car itself,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, who specializes in robotics and drones.

Harvard University researchers note that as much as one-third of the land in some cities is devoted to parking spots. Some city planners expect that the cost of homes will fall as more space will become available in cities. If parking on city streets is reduced and other vehicles on roadways become smaller, homes and offices will take up that space.

It is more likely that available roadway space — once parking on the margins is less necessary — would be repurposed as walkable shared roads and urban green space. Especially since the driverless cars would be programmed to drive at 10 miles per hour in such areas, and would do a better job at avoiding a child chasing a ball in the street.

Parking lots could be repurposed, yes, and many of those might be converted into homes and offices, and yes, that might decrease housing costs somewhat, although the urban surge is still going.

Again, the current population trend in the US is a migration of the young and affluent into denser urban settings, and the displacement of less affluent people into near suburbia, and the collapse of exurbia (See Michael Frey’s Population Growth in Metro America Since 1980: Putting the Volatile 2000s in Perspective, for real stats on demographic change and migration to the cities). Even if people could ride a bicycle in the back of a driverless van commuting to some distant exurb from a downtown job, the reality is no one wants to live out there anymore. 

The biggest trend missing here is the likely increase in municipally-managed cars in a driverless world: a massive car share service. People could dispense with car ownership, and the costs of relying on the equivalent of driverless taxis would plummet, since there will be no hacks driving the cars.

Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities – Nick Bilton

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