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 make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.