Car Culture Undone… By the Car

Detroit: 1951 and 2010 (University of Oklahoma, Institute for Quality Communities)

It is well known that in postwar America, the automobile was an unstoppable force in transforming urban landscapes. For arresting proof, one only needs to look at these before and after images of midwestern cities. So could it be that the thing that finally tips the scales back in favor of less car-dependent planning is, well, the car itself?

Urban living is trending — thanks in part to technologies that simplify some of its hassles — but will the self-driving car reshape our cities more than anything since the mid-century explosion of car culture? Will affluent tech hubs in California, New York, and London be willing and able to help government understand the technology, and its limitations, such that the public good can be maximized?

It seems unlikely that autonomous vehicles will simply replace the cars that we drive, with everything else staying constant. More probable is that the impacts of AVs — on the cost of on-demand ride hailing, demand for parking, and demand for public transit, for example — will begin to alter how we design cities. The technology itself, while already well-developed, is still likely to require some fundamental changes to transportation infrastructure. Rather than diminish the role of public transit, less traffic congestion and the elimination of street parking could open up lanes for more efficient and cost-effective services like Bus Rapid Transit.

There are also inherent moral quandaries that will need to be addressed, perhaps not with software but with urban design. Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon, was quoted in the New York Times Magazine last year:

The sensory limitations of these vehicles must be accounted for… especially in an urban world filled with complex architectural forms, reflective surfaces, unpredictable weather and temporary construction sites. This means that cities may have to be redesigned, or may simply mutate over time, to accommodate a car’s peculiar way of experiencing the built environment.

There is clearly a role for government in facilitating this process. If it can bring designers, planners, and those building the technology together in support of public interests (a big ask, for sure), the self-driving car could help undo the damage caused by its ancestor.


Hampton, S. (2014, December 12). 60 Years of Urban Change: Midwest. Retrieved October 29, 2016, from

Manaugh, G. (2015, November 11). The Dream Life of Driverless Cars. Retrieved October 29, 2016, from

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