From self-driving cars to Zoomtube: What would transport look like in Judge Dredd’s Mega City One?

Mega City One. Judge Dredd® is a registered trademark. Copyright © 2017 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Images used with permission of the copyright holder.

It’s the year 2102AD. Something has been found underneath Sector 301 of Mega City One. Judge Dredd is on his way to the scene. He’s thundering in from above on his heavy-duty Lawmaster motorbike. Visible below are shiny Zoomtubes, weaving their way through the monolithic habitation blocks and unbroken urban blight. They pulsate with computer-controlled convoys of fast-moving automated vehicles, speeding along inside a vacuum.

As many as 800m people live in Mega City One. It’s crowded. Convulsing. Choking. Breaking under its own weight. The civilian population is mostly illiterate, since artificial intelligence removed the need for most types of work. But they are restless, always on the move and often in trouble. This is why street judges like Dredd exist. To dispatch instant justice, to restore order by force – they are judge, jury and frequently executioner: they are the law.

Mega City One has a secret. It is built on top of abandoned and ruined “under cities”, from before the nuclear war of 2070AD. Dredd is descending into this dark undercroft now. Spotlights have been set up around a crime scene, but this is not what attracts Dredd’s attention. No. His eyes are drawn to an old Brutalist building from 1970AD. A set of rusty steel roller-shutter doors have been ripped from their moorings. Inside, there appears to be a brand new, petrol-burning vehicle. These were mass-produced in the 20th century, but now they are incredibly rare and expensive antiques.

Why it is here is unclear. It sits inside a laboratory of some kind, connected to ancient silicon-based computers. A transport professor from the City Central De-Education Establishment is already sitting inside the vehicle, looking around in bemused wonderment. “They were trying to steal this” she says. “It’s a completely intact driving simulator laboratory from the 21st century”.

Dredd pauses for a moment. “What is driving?” he asks.

The professor chuckles. “About 100 years ago, people would sit here and turn this large wheel with their hands to send the vehicle left or right. At the same time, they’d press these pedals here with their feet, to start and stop”. Brushing some cobwebs away from the top of the instrument panel, the professor goes on: “Sounds dangerous doesn’t it. And in some ways it was. It’s astonishing how something so primitive could be used by so many people.”

Old school: a driving simulator laboratory from the 21st century. Image: Guy Walker/Heriot Watt University/author provided.

She reaches into the passenger seat and picks up a thick, dusty folder containing hundreds of sheets of paper. “People used to think driving was a simple activity, but these documents prove otherwise. Look, here: it’s a task analysis – an antiquated method of research based on hundreds of hours of observations, looking at how people used to control these things. Did you know, people had to perform more than 3,000 individual tasks, at the correct time, in the correct sequence, in order to avoid crashing? Amazing. In fact, people had quite a lot of trouble adapting to automatic vehicles.”

Dredd regards her incredulously. “I know!” she says, smiling, as she shifts herself out of the driver’s seat and walks to the other side of the laboratory. Dredd follows, intrigued. Part of the roof has collapsed and water is leaking in, dripping on piles of old paper books and broken coffee mugs with the crest of a once famous university printed on them. The professor crouches down and peels away a thin sheaf of water-damaged paper from the pile.

“This will take years to go through, but look at all these: these old scientific papers offer a fascinating insight into how people in the 21st century were thinking about vehicle automation. They categorised it into six levels, from zero automation –- a bit like that petrol-burning vehicle over there, where the driver does everything – right through to full automation, like we have now.”

“What’s interesting are the levels in between. For years, their Artificial Intelligence systems weren’t sophisticated enough for full automation in all conditions. So the vehicle controlled some of the functions, such as automatic cruising on the highway – their equivalent of a Meg-Way. But the human driver had to do the rest. And judging by all these other ancient texts lying here, it seems that caused no end of trouble.”

“Really?” Dredd replies, with growing curiosity. “I mean, it just seems obvious that AI is a much more efficient way to pilot our vehicles – especially when a computer controls the whole traffic system. Why would that ever be a problem?”

“You’ll like this then,” the professor says, as she bends down to pick up another text. “They called it the study of ‘human factors’. Look: this describes some of the experiments performed in this laboratory a century ago. It says that when a crude safety technology called ‘anti-lock brakes’ was introduced in 1985AD, people in experiments drove faster and braked harder, because the new technology made them feel safer.”

Ancient history: the laboratory’s control room. Image: Guy Walker/Heriot Watt University/author provided.

“And this one here. This is an early study into night-vision from 2000AD. Far from making things safer, the tests showed that it actually made drivers speed up, even in thick fog. And this one here, look, it shows that as cars got more technically advanced, their drivers became more isolated from the road and began to lose touch with what was happening around them. It seems as if old-fashioned drivers actually needed some of that technological primitiveness to remain 'situationally aware’. So up to a certain point, having things to do actually helped them to drive better.”

This was beginning to make sense now: AI hadn’t replaced human drivers overnight. It had taken years, decades, for automated transport systems such as the Zoomtube, Robochairs, and Mo-pads to be developed and refined. This slowness to adapt was why you could so often hear Mega City One’s chief transport engineer bemoaning the fact the city would be an engineer’s paradise, were it not for the humans. Dredd bent down to pick up a red book from out of the puddle at his feet.

“Ah yes, Human Factors in Automotive Engineering, I’ve been searching for a copy of that text for a while,” the professor says. “In the back they try to imagine what driving would be like today in the 22nd century. It’s rather quaint.” Turning to face him, the professor looks Dredd straight in the eye: “Still, I wonder what the inhabitants of this ancient city would have thought of Mega City One?”

“They would have learnt a lot from our advanced technology,” Dredd replies, with confidence.

Mega City One: paradise for who? Judge Dredd® is a registered trademark. Copyright © 2017 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Images used with permission of the copyright holder.

Turning away a little wistfully, the professor says to herself, quietly: “I’m not so sure. Mega City One is like a giant machine. The technology rules. It is a logical extension of the ways we humans used to think about cities and transport, back when this building was constructed.” She waves her hand vaguely at the decaying concrete structure they’re standing in.

“But maybe we could have taken a different direction. A more human-centred direction. Instead of building a city which is optimised for computers, to make things more efficient, we could have used this powerful technology to meet human needs. Like the need for identity, freedom and participation. Heck, people used to enjoy driving some of these old relics...”

The ConversationIn the end, the professor has the last word: “Don’t you see, the harder we drive the technology, the more we seek to make things logical and machine-like, the more we get all sorts of unexpected problems, which we humans still need to fix. That’s the problem with all these dystopian comic book cities of the future.”

Guy Walker is associate professor in human factors at Heriot-Watt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  

While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.