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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“Black cabs are not public transport”: on the most baffling press release we’ve seen in some time

An earlier black cab protest: this one was against congestion and pollution. I'm not making this up. Image: Getty.

You know, I sometimes think that trade unions get a raw deal in this country. Reports of industrial action almost always frame it as a matter of workers’ selfishness and public disruption, rather than one of defending vital labour rights; and when London’s tube grinds to a halt, few people will find out what the dispute is actually about before declaring that the drivers should all be replaced by robots at the earliest possible opportunity or, possibly, shot.

We should be a bit more sympathetic towards trade unions, is what I’m saying here: a bit more understanding about the role they played in improving working life for all of us, and the fact that defending their members’ interests is literally their job.

Anyway, all that said, the RMT seems to have gone completely fucking doolally.

TAXI UNION RMT says that the closure of the pivotal Bank Junction to all vehicles (other than buses and bicycles) exposes Transport for London’s (TfL) symptom-focused decision-making and unwillingness to tackle the cause of the problem.

So begins a press release the union put out on Thursday. It’s referring to a plan to place new restrictions on who can pass one of the City of London’s dirtiest and most dangerous junctions, by banning private vehicles from using it.

The junction in question: busy day. Image: Google.

If at first glance the RMT’s words seem reasonable enough, then consider two pieces of information not included in that paragraph:

1) It’s not a TfL scheme, but a City of London Corporation one (essentially, the local council); and

2) The reason for the press release is that, at 5pm on Thursday, hundreds of black cab drivers descended on Bank Junction to create gridlock, in their time-honoured way of whining about something. Blocking major roads for several hours at a time has always struck me as an odd way of trying to win friends and influence people, if I’m frank, but let’s get back to the press release, the next line of which drops a strong hint that something else is going on here:

TfL’s gutlessness in failing to stand-up to multi-national venture capital-backed raiders such as Uber, has left our streets flooded with minicabs.

That suggests that this is another barrage in the black cabs’ ongoing war against competition from Uber. This conflict is odd in its way – it’s not as if there weren’t minicabs offering a low cost alternative to the classic London taxi before Uber came along, but we’ve not had a lengthy PR war against, say, Gants Hill Cars – but it’s at least familiar territory, so it’d be easy, at this point, to assume we know where we are.

Except then it gets really weird.

With buses stuck in gridlock behind haphazardly driven Uber cars – and with the Tube dangerously overcrowded during peak hours – people are turning out of desperation to commuting by bicycle.

Despite its impracticality, there has been an explosion in the number of people commuting by bike. Astonishingly, 30% of road traffic traversing Bank Junction are now cyclists.

Soooo... the only reason anyone might want to cycle is because public transport is now bad because of Uber? Not because it’s fun or healthy or just nicer than being stuck in a metal box for 45 minutes – because of badly driven Ubers something something?

Other things the cabbies will blame Uber for in upcoming press releases: climate change, Brexit, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, the fact they couldn’t get tickets for Hamilton.

It is time that TfL refused to licence Uber, which it acknowledges is unlawfully “plying for hire”.

Okay, maybe, we can talk about that.

It is time that black cabs were recognised and supported as a mode of public transport.

...what?

It is time that cuts to the Tube were reversed.

I mean, sure, we can talk about that too, but... can you go back to that last bit, please?

RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash, said:

“RMT agrees with proposals which improve public safety, but it is clear that the driving factor behind the decision is to improve bus journey times under a buckling road network.

“Black cabs are an integral part of the public transport system and as the data shows, one of the safest.”

This is all so very mixed up, it’s hard to know where to begin. Black cabs are not public transport – as lovely as they are, they’re simply too expensive. Even in New York City, where the cabs are much, much cheaper, it’d be silly to class them as public transport. In London, where they’re so over-priced they’re basically the preserve of the rich and those who’ve had enough to drink to mistakenly consider themselves such, it’s just nonsense.

Also – if this decision has been taken for the sake of improving bus journey times, then what’s wrong with that? I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be amazed if that wasn’t a bigger gain to the city than “improving life for the people who take cabs”. Because – as I may have mentioned – black cabs are not public transport.


Anyway, to sum the RMT’s position up: we should invest in the tube but not the buses, expensive black cabs are public transport but cheaper Ubers are the work of the devil, and the only reason anyone would ever go by bike is because they’ve been left with no choice by all those people in the wrong sort of taxi screwing everything up. Oh, and causing gridlock at peak time is a good way to win friends.

Everyone got that straight?

None of this is to say Uber is perfect – there are many things about it that are terrible, including both the way people have mistaken it for a revolutionary new form of capitalism (as opposed to, say, a minicab firm with an app), and its attitude to workers (ironically, what they could really do with is a union). The way TfL is acting towards the firm is no doubt imperfect too.

But the RMT’s attitude in this press release is just baffling. Of course it has to defends its members interests – taxi drivers just as much as tube drivers. And of course it has to be seen to be doing so, so as to attract new members.

But should it really be trying to do both in the same press release? Because the result is a statement which demands TfL do more for cab drivers, slams it for doing anything for bus users, and casually insults anyone on two wheels in the process.

A union’s job is to look after its members. I’m not sure nonsense like this will achieve anything of the sort.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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