Will self-driving cars Make the Suburbs Great Again?

The delights of living in a suburb – coming to a self-driver like you in just a few years. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The future of urban life is the commuter belt. Or so says one economist, who believes technology and transport improvements will help us live better lives on the fringes of cities than we do in the middle of them.

“A city is a technical solution to a problem from the Industrial Revolution,” said Karen Harris, managing director of Bain & Company's Macro Trends Group, at the Slush startup conference in Helsinki last week. “We needed to have lots of bodies clustered to run our cities… it was a genius solution.”

We no longer need to live all clumped together, thanks to improvements in communications and transport (such as self-driving cars – let’s ignore the current realities of Southern) mean. “Why do we assume that urbanisation will continue in a straight line?” she asked.

At the core of this idea is spatial economics – what Harris describes as “the cost of distance”. Look at the cost of sending information. It used to require a stamp to send a note. Now, regardless of how far the message travels, we do it for almost free (if you accept the assumption of internet access as a utility).

But soon the cost of moving goods and people will also fall, helped by faster trains, driverless cars and trucks, and drones, she predicted – you won't mind a longer commute so much if it's fully automated.

A profoundly un-sexy self-driving car from Google. Image: Marc van der Chijs / Flickr.

Of course, we've heard variations on this argument before. The rise of the internet meant we could all run small businesses from a beautiful valley in Wales – shame the broadband speeds are astonishingly bad – and video conferencing meant we never needed to travel for a meeting again, instead Skyping in from our over-sized kitchens or massive, manicured gardens. Yet the past few years have seen more younger people crowd into cities than ever before, and in the UK the rate of urbanisation has continued its steady climb. And we all still have to attend meetings.

But the shift is starting to happen in some countries, Harris reports. “In the US, for example, where the census has great data, we've seen 2 per cent of the population move away from city centres to the outer edge of the commuting belt,” she said. “In France, that's 3 per cent. Wherever there’s lots of land, in advanced economies, we’re seeing people taking advantage of the falling cost of distance.”

The view from your office window? Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Those are relatively small shifts, and Harris admitted that it's “harder in some places than others”. Consider London. If you're moving from zone three to the edge of Oyster coverage, it likely has more to do with the insane home prices in the capital than the falling “cost of distance”. If you can't afford to live in the centre, you have no choice but to reside further out and suffer a commute, regardless of technology innovations that may make it slightly less painful.

That's why such cities are increasingly the province of the young, as they don't mind living “piled in a flat”, Harris said, as well as the rich and empty nesters. But what about everyone else? Are we doomed to live as zombie commuters, returning to dull suburban enclaves each night?


Harris' argument is that life on the fringes of a metropolis can be better, pointing to “new village” developments on the outskirts of American cities that have a variety of retail and entertainment options, as well as local work opportunities – and a cheaper cost of living than the middle of a city. “People who right now commute long distances, crowd into perhaps suburbs, can live in places that are more pleasant,” she argued.

So no zombie commuters? “The Walking Dead is actually filmed in a 'new village', a developer-built community,” she said. “But it has the elements that we all crave.

“I'm not saying leave cities and live in a cave with a cow.” She notes the wealthy people live in walkable high streets, with a variety of amenities, saying the rest of us should be offered the “ability to express that desire”.

A more sexy self-driving car from Mercedes-Benz. Image: Mercedes-Benz / Vimeo.

Some of the technology that will enable this is already here, but others will take years if not decades to arrive. Driverless cars face engineering and regulatory hurdles, but could make travelling further distances to get to a train station or to the office more palatable. And once the necessary infrastructure is in place to give us urban-feeling lives in suburban locations, the number of people moving out will tick above those 2 per cent and 3 per cent figures, Harris predicted.

However, she noted social change is faster than technological change. “A movement away from cities could happen much more quickly than we think and we expect,” Harris predicted.

We may get to the suburbs faster than driverless cars can take us there.

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The Delhi Metro: How do you build a transport system for 26m people?

Indraprastha station in 2006. Image: Getty.

“Thou hath not played rugby until thou hath tried to get onto a Delhi Metro in rush hour,” a wise Yogi once said.

If you’ve never been on New Delhi’s Metro, your mind might conjure up the the conventional image of Indian trains: tawdry carriages, buckets of sweat, people hanging out of windows and the odd holy cow wandering around for good measure.

Well, no. The Delhi Metro is actually one of the most marvellously sophisticated, affordable, timely, and practical public transportation systems out there. On a 45C day in the Indian summer, many a traveller has shed tears of joy on entering the spacious, air-conditioned carriages.

Above ground, Delhi is a sprawling metropolis of the scariest kind: 26m people, three times the population of London, churn and grind through Delhi itself.

The National Capital Region, an area which includes Delhi and its surrounding satellite cities – now victim of its never-ending urban sprawl – has an estimated population of almost 50m. So how do you tie such a huge population together?

The map; click to expand. Image: Delhi Metro Rail.

Motorised vehicles won’t do it alone. For one, air pollution is a horrific problem in Delhi, as it is across India. Last November, the government declared a state of emergency when the Indian capital was engulfed by a toxic, choking fog so thick that you could barely see several metres in front of you, drawing allusions to the great Victorian fogs in London.

Then there’s Delhi’s famous traffic. Twenty-five years ago, the travel writer William Dalrymple observed that you could reduce the Delhi’s road laws to one simple idea: the largest vehicle always had the right of way. The traffic has tamed somewhat in the 21st century, but the number of vehicles has multiplied again and again, and it’s not uncommon for people to be stuck in four-hour traffic jams when they try to traverse the mighty city.

Enter the Delhi Metro – a huge network of 164 over- and underground stations – and by any account, a titan of civil engineering and administration.

The numbers are simply colossal. Every day the metro serves on average almost 3m people. Annually, it carries around 1bn.

In a country where intercity trains still turn up a day late, the Delhi Metro is extraordinarily timely. On the major lines, trains will come every several minutes. The trains are extraordinary speedy, and you’ll reach your destination in a fraction of the time it would take for you to drive the distance.

The minimum fare is 10 rupees (12p); the maximum fare, to and from the airport, is 50 (60p).

The evolution of the metro. Image: Terramorphus/Wikimedia Commons.

Construction of the metro system began in 1998, with the first section completed in late 2002. Keen to avoid the catastrophic corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement which plagued eastern city of the Kolkata Metro, developers took advice from Hong Kong’s high-tech system There have been several stages of development to add extra lines; more is planned. By 2020, it is hoped that the 135 miles of line will have increased to over 300.  

One thing quite striking about the metro is its women’s only carriages at the rear and the front of the train, marked by pink signs. Sexual assault and harassment has been a horrific problem on Delhi’s transport systems. Women can of course go anywhere on the train – but men who violate the carriage system will have to deal with the scathing anger of the entire pink carriage.


One of the under-discussed impacts of widespread and well-used public transportation systems is their propensity to break down social and class barriers over time. As the London Tube began to be used more and more in early 20th century London, people from completely different walks of life and classes began to brush shoulders and share the same air.

The story is similar in Delhi. The necessity of the metro helps to break down old caste and class divisions. Of course, many elite Delhiites would not be seen dead on the metro, and choose their private chauffeur over brushing shoulders with the common man. But slowly and surely, the times are a changing.

What’s more, the Delhi Metro system is one of the greenest around. Six years ago, the Metro was the first railway system in the world to be awarded carbon credits from the United Nations for helping to reduce pollution in the capital by an estimated 640,000 tonnes every year.  

All praises sung and said, however, at peak times it’s less mind the gap and more mind your ribs – as a fifth of humanity seems to try to get on and off the train at once.

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