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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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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