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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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.