The car shaped the modern city. Tomorrow’s cars are likely to reshape it all over again.
When I’m explaining the idea of today’s phenomenon of high frequency change, I often refer back to examples of change of great magnitude from the last century. One of my frequent reference points is the shift from the horse and cart to the car.
This was an enormous change, not least for the horses, nearly a million of which were made redundant in the UK alone. The advent of accessible car ownership shaped our cities. Cars required parking, both residential and commercial. Our easy range of travel increased. Families could spread out and remain physically connected. Stores could be larger and more geographically distributed. Commuting distances could be extended.
Not all of these things has proven to be a net positive.
What replaces the car will also reshape the city. And a large part of what replaces today’s cars will be, well, tomorrow’s cars. But we often underestimate how different self-driving, electric cars will be to their human-steered, oil-fuelled counterparts.
Cleaner & quieter
For a start, there is the pollution. Electric means zero fumes but also dramatically less noise. Tomorrow’s cars will be much nicer to have around when they are all electric. Proximity to a road for housing, cafes, and bars will be much less of an issue. Properties on busy roads may start to appreciate. Pavement culture can expand.
Semi-pedestrianised areas should be a safer prospect with self-driving cars, at least at some point in the future where their ability to deal with complex, fast-changing environments is well-developed and proven. We can build more of a ‘pavement culture’.
Though I have questioned the validity of the fleet model in the past, it still seems most likely to me that we will largely relinquish ownership of cars, particularly those of us who live in large cities. This releases huge amounts of space at the front of properties and in garages. Space that might be used to accommodate multiple generations of the same family, if house price inflation can’t be addressed. Spaces that might be used for growing fruit and vegetables that may become more expensive in the face of climate change. Space that might be used for collecting and storing energy as the grid becomes more distributed.
In city centres, parking lots may be turned over to housing. But this presents one of the less obvious potential impacts: parking is a major source of revenue for companies and councils alike, as my client Tim Devine from A J Gallagher pointed out at the Alarm risk management conference this week, where we were both speaking. It won’t just be drivers who see income disappear as machines take the wheel.
Fewer of tomorrow’s cars parked on the streets will clear pavements and make crossing safer. And they will ease existing, and free space for the addition of, bike lanes. Bikes and other personal transport should be safer around self-driving vehicles than humans. Self-driving cars will give cyclists more room on the road, and they won’t get aggressive. They shouldn’t fail to notice cyclists with the same frequency as drivers.
If there are more cyclists on the road, then perhaps we can expand bike lanes beyond single-width, creating space for other forms of personal transport. I still find it depressing that our cramped roads and narrow pavements mean we have largely closed ourselves off in the UK to balance boards, electric scooters and other novel forms of personal transport. They have their issues but I would love to see us create both the physical and legal space for experimentation.
Self-driving vehicles combined with other new forms of electric personal transport potentially add value to mass transit systems. A self-driving pod or electric scooter may be a good and cheap way to get from rail station to destination. But this will be a very different proposition to using a self-driving car for intercity travel. People are rightly questioning investment in new rail with self-driving vehicles on the horizon. Could they carry people between cities more efficiently?
I think this is unlikely, at least in the medium term. Given the recent performance of our rail network, a car that whisks you from door to door is incredibly attractive right now. But fix some fundamental issues with the rail network and it should remain the best prospect for rapid transit between most urban centres, and in many cases, around them.
As we make the transition from human to machine control — with full autonomy in a mass market car, licensed for the road, probably still a decade or more away — the roads will still be congested, and parking will remain a problem. It will take time for the fleets to build and their proposition to become a normal part of everyday life.
Autonomous, electric vehicles will have many other effects on our cities. Small garages and MOT centres will likely disappear as these vehicles will need less servicing and what they do need will mostly happen at fleet centres. There will be some form of charging infrastructure, though where that will be and what it will look like will depend on battery/fuel cell advances in the next decade. Taxis as we know them will likely be eliminated or at least drastically reduced in the long term.
All of these changes will take place, but the fact of them will slow the transition. Every change to tomorrow’s cars will have people lobbying against it. Long after the technology is ready we will still be arguing about whether should make the changes that we can.