Self-driving cars, cities and sprawl

(This post is an excerpt from my weekly email, Apropos of Nothing. Sign up!)

I’ve come across a lot of articles about self-driving cars lately. And, it’s finally hitting me how close we are to having them and how much they’ll change about the way we live. “An End End to Parking” is the piece that really got me seeing how powerful the the second order effects of self-driving cars could be. Writing for Mother Jones, Clive Thompson focuses on two ways that self-driving cars may revolutionize our cities.

No city for old garages

First, imagine you drive — or your car drives you — to work. Then what? You get out of the car and the car can go autonomously park itself. And, if the car can do that, does it really need to park in a lot under or next to your office building? Probably not. It could drive itself to the outskirts of town and park there. Or, it could decide not to park and just circle endlessly until you’re ready for it. Or, you could allow others to “share” your car while you’re not using it. Doesn’t matter. In any of those scenarios, gobs of centrally located real estate — currently devoted to parking garages — are freed up. This possibility has urban planners very excited:

San Francisco is going bananas for new housing, and Manhattan is always looking for space, and here we have this sitting in front of us. […] That’s what autonomous vehicles can do.

One professor Thompson spoke to says that if a city fully switched to self-driving cars, it would need 90% fewer parking spaces.

Tear down that wall

The second major question that Thompson considers is the effect self-driving cars would have on where we choose to live:

If you can read, watch TV, work and do email, or catch up on sleep while your car steers, the sting goes out of commuting.
In this version of the future, self-driving cars could smash through the Marchetti Wall. They would unlock what’s known as “induced demand” — prompting commutes of such lengths that they’d have been previously unfathomable.

We’ll get back to the “Marchetti Wall” in a bit, but first, let me weigh in here as a recent expert on “commutes of such lengths that [I previously considered] unfathomable.” As far as I’m concerned, I already take an autonomous vehicle to work each day: a commuter train. I always get a good seat, a beautiful view of the Hudson River, and can do work — wrote this very paragraph — on the train.

If not for the train and my confidence that I could be productive while on it, I never would have moved so far from the city. So, I’m already doing what Thompson suggests many more people will choose to do in the future. And yet, I’m skeptical that millions will follow my lead and join me as a “mega commuter”. That’s what the Census Bureau calls folks who commute more than 50 miles and more than 90 minutes each way. As of 2013, 1.9% of the commuters in the NY area fit this definition. (Only the SF area was higher at 2.06%) Unfortunately, the Census Bureau doesn’t break out how my fellow mega commuters get to work (I’m sure most drive, which sounds just awful). Personally, I’m much happier on a long, comfortable train ride than I would be on a short, stressful car ride.

That’s why, when my wife and I recently shocked ourselves and decided to ditch NYC for the country, there were very few towns we’d even consider. As far as I was concerned, if I couldn’t walk to the train station — if I even had to drive five minutes a day — then that town was out. And that, combined with the desire to hike, kayak, ski, etc… from my front door, is what led us to Cold Spring, NY. BUT, fast forward to the future, if I could’ve summoned a self-driving car to take me work, our options for where to live would’ve increased dramatically. We could live deep in the woods and still “take the train” to work — or go for a night out — whenever we wanted. Cool, right?

Yes, but it’s also somewhat terrifying. If Thompson is right and commutes of “previously unfathomable” lengths become a reality, then we might also witness a massive expansion of urban/suburban sprawl. Towns with cheap housing — cheap partly because they lack good bus/train connections to cities — would suddenly be ripe for those of us who’ve been priced out of cities. (Then again, if cities have 90% fewer parking spaces, maybe some new housing would go up to offset the rise in real estate prices.)

But wait, before we get too dizzy thinking about the run-on effects of all this… back to that Marchetti Wall thing. Cesare Marchetti’s research (here, read it, I did) shows that dating back to ancient Rome, people don’t like being “exposed” for more than an hour a day. And that that hour of total exposure, a.k.a commuting, has held remarkably constant over the centuries, whether we travel by foot, horse, car, or high speed train. “Even people in prison for a life sentence, having nothing to do and nowhere to go, walk around for one hour a day, in the open.” So, the notion that millions of people will start traveling to and from home — our “cave” as Marchetti puts it in the base terms that he prefers — for multiple hours each day is not likely. No matter how comfortable and connected you are, it’s still an awfully long time to sit on your keister. But then I never fathomed that I would be a mega commuter and here I — happily — am. So, what do I know?

Here are some more of the articles that were marinating in my head as I considered this all:

Cars and The Future

“When it comes to questioning the future of transportation, the “What?”, “How?”, and “Where?” are all in play.” Ben Thompson looks at which companies are likely to dominate the auto industry in the future and make some keen observations along the way, e.g. that sales of cars — today’s gas-guzzling, stupid cars that we have (gasp!) drive ourselves — are actually skyrocketing. That makes the future that Clive Thompson writes about, in which we reach a tipping point of self-driving car adoption, that much farther off.

Lyft President John Zimmer Is Going All-In on Self-Driving Cars

I enjoyed this episode of Kara Swisher’s podcast, Re/Code Decode. It’s got lots on Lyft’s partnership with GM, self-driving cars, and, of course, gets into the Uber/Lyft dogfight. Zimmer mentions Starbucks as an example of the company that Lyft wants to be, i.e. a great brand and corporate citizen.

Admit It, You Love Uber

This profile of Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick is still a good read. Here’s what I wrote in a September edition of Apropos of Nothing: I was grateful for this Fast Company profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. I was already familiar with the stereotype of him as a greedy, misogynistic, steamroller unconcerned with whom his pisses off or which industries he “disrupts.” Some of that is likely true and some, like his supposed love for Ayn Rand, may be an avatar he uses to impress VC’s. So who is he? “According to friends and colleagues, the only ideology Kalanick subscribes to is contrarianism. “He really thrives when he can subvert the norm,” says someone who has known him for more than a decade. Another coworker tells me that Kalanick likes “poking conventional wisdom in the eye.” Kalanick’s natural state, it turns out, is debate.”

The Emergence of the Super-Commuter [PDF]

According to this 2012 NYU study, super-commuting is on the rise. Super-commuters are people who live in one metro area, work in another and do the commute a few times a week (not every day). Traffic on many routes doubled from 2002 to 2012, including from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Houston, Northern California to Los Angeles and Boston to New York.

Apropos of Nothing

One last quote from “An End to Parking?” that didn’t fit above, but that I love:

[The parking consultant] is struck by the shift in the zeitgeist. He’s 46 and says that “my generation was the last generation to believe that owning our own car would bring us freedom, autonomy, social status, sex.” For today’s young people, the mobile phone is a much more potent technology of autonomy and social status — and, in a neat twist, you can’t use your phone while you’re driving. They are rival activities, and the phone is winning.

Apropos of Nothing… I write a weekly email with thoughts and links on product, tech and media called Apropos of Nothing. Sign up!

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.