As a New Yorker, I grew up riding the subway almost every day. I have a license, hastily and miraculously acquired in my third decade, but I probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel. I am the perfect candidate for the promise of autonomous driving, and shared ownership, or driving as a service. While on-demand, autonomous vehicles promise to make my own life easier in the next decade, what could that mean for cities as a whole?
How could the forces of increasing privatization and automation change how we experience cities over the next decade? What could our cities of the future look like?
First, the facts:
Car utilization currently stands at about 4%, meaning on average, people who own cars only use them 4% of the time.1
Conservative estimates say autonomous vehicles will be the norm a decade from now.2
Private, shared, on-demand rides now easily compete with public transport options on price, not just convenience (In San Francisco, a Lyft Shuttle can cost $2.75, while a ride on municipal transit costs $2.25.)
The U.S. in particular is behind in investing in infrastructure and transportation (The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure a D+.3 U.S. transportation fell from fifth in the World Economic Forum’s rankings in 2002 to twenty-fourth in 20114)
Urban sprawl continues (Over the last two decades most cities in the world have become less dense, and the trend is expected to continue, both in the developing and developed world.5
And, as has often been repeated, more than half the population now lives in cities 6
So, what could all this mean for how we experience cities in the future? Here are three scenarios that provide a glimpse of the ways transportation could change how we experience cities in the future, for better and for worse.
Scenario 1: Self-Driving Car Subscription Services
In this scenario, individual car ownership and reliance on public transport plummets as city-dwellers access monthly or yearly subscriptions to on-demand, self-driving cars. We are most likely to see this first in mid-sized, early-adopter U.S. cities that are already dominated by ride-share apps, such as San Francisco, Austin and Denver.
The Good: Vast swathes of parking space could be freed up within cities, leaving room for flexible programming, parklets, sidewalk cafes, etc.
The Risks: Subscription services require a credit card or financial and technological savvy, which could exclude people. Even if the price becomes competitive with public transportation, the gap could widen between those plugged into the seamless, shared, self-driving world and those left to pay with cash for a crumbling public transport system.
Scenario 2: Expanding Networks, Expanding Metropolitan Zones
In this scenario, local government would reinvest in public transportation infrastructure, adding a dynamic new layer to the city. EVs, lithium batteries and city subsidies will be critical to this vision, in order to drive down costs and allow the public transportation options to compete with private options. This is complemented by regional transport options, or extensions of the subway/rail network, that increase access to areas that were formerly on the outskirts of the city, or only accessibly by car.
Cities such as Rio and Los Angeles could be surprise public transport champions, especially as LA gears up for the 2028 Olympics. Mexico City, Hong Kong, and (once again) the Bay Area could also be prime candidates for expanding metropolitan zones fueled by regional transport.
The Good: This could increase access to transportation, and increase access to different parts of a city. If subsidized by a flat rate, independent of distance, it could be particularly helpful in increasing accessibility. True regional connectivity could also be a driver for business growth, and decrease air travel.
The Risks: Increasing sprawl could lead to a less dynamic urban fabric. There are conflicting opinions about the relationship between density and quality of life6, but for those who seek density as part of their daily urban life, it may be harder to find in the midst of a growing metropolitan zone.
Scenario 3: Feet-friendly, Multi-modal Hubs
Here, autonomous vehicles are restricted to rapid transit lanes, while pedestrians, bikes and other alternative modes or transport are given precedence. Electric bikes7, scooters and boards (but never Segways; let’s be real) power people through the city. The lower cost means many of these are individually owned, but they could also be privately or publicly run shared programs. Cities that are already friendly to multi-modal transport and pedestrian traffic, such as Amsterdam, New York, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Curitiba.
The Good: There are individual and public health benefits to the increased individual mobility. More people walking, biking, scooting etc. has health benefits, and environmental benefits. It also leaves more room for serendipitous interactions.
The Risks: A multi-modal city requires more nuanced urban planning, something local governments may not have the resources to provide. Shared bike systems, which would likely be a public-private partnership, could present the same access issues as an autonomous vehicle subscription.
Transportation is one of the factors that can and will transform how we experience cities in the future. While the trends underlying these imagined scenarios are well underway, the way those trends are combined and experienced is not inevitable. It’s worth considering now how we want to experience our cities, and which elements of these future scenarios we hope will prevail.
— Estimates vary from three years to thirty years. I believe we will be interacting with them in early-adopter cities in the next three years.
5 https://www.planetizen.com/node/79342 (From a 2015 report by the Urban Land Institute, Density: Drivers, Dividends and Debates)
Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute have written about the clear relationship between density and the rate of innovation, as documented in this 2013 Atlantic article: