IMAGE: Jakarta Car-Free Day (Gunawan Kartapranata CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cities without cars: no longer science fiction

As rumors abound about Uber creating fleets of driverless Teslas or Mercedes (since denied), how close are we to creating truly car-free cities: have we finally begun to realize that as a species we made a huge mistake over the last century by turning our lives and economies over to the automobile?

Are we about to embrace a world in which we stop owning cars — surely one of the dumbest things to spend money on — and start using more logical alternatives that will allow us to rethink our urban spaces? Will this happen within five years, ten, or fifty? Some cities are already talking about closing off large areas of their centers to private vehicles and introducing more public transport, creating bike lanes, and short-term rents of electric-powered cars.

When we read news stories about large corporations trying to create a future that doesn’t involve an economy based on the purchase of huge chunks of metal weighing a ton and that burn fossil fuels that move one or two people around in a completely inefficient manner, what are we supposed to think? Is this a science fiction scenario, or a science fact reality? How long will it take before cities are designed with people in mind instead of privileging a mode of transport that belongs to the last century?

Here’s the translated text of my column in the Spanish online newspaper El Español on the topic:

News and science fiction

Last week, a German magazine published a story that Uber was interested in buying 100,000 Mercedes S-Class, one of the world’s most luxurious cars, some of which have limited self-driving options, at a reported total cost of some €10 billion.

The story followed last year’s rumors that the company was going to buy half a million Tesla electric cars in 2020; and this for a company whose business model is based on simply hooking up drivers with passengers, rather than owning fleets of cars. The stories have all been denied, but they should prompt us to give the future of transport some thought.

Can we be sure that some company out there isn’t going to suddenly change its strategy and become the owner of one of the largest transport fleets in the world? After all, Uber has been looking into the potential of self-driving vehicles for some time now… How would the world change if overnight we found ourselves being ferried around by driverless cars?

There are any number of analyses out there that present convincing arguments that car ownership is one of the biggest mistakes we ever made and that we need to correct that error now. We need to return our city spaces to people.

Have we really begun to understand the life-changing potential of such a move: no more parking problems, no more traffic jams, not more road deaths, no more noise… it doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Things are changing fast, and ideas that once sounded like the stuff of science fiction are increasingly tangible realities. We could soon stop spending so much of our income on these metal beasts and the filthy fuel used to drive them, at the same as feeding a vast global industry, and instead start moving around in highly efficient, non-polluting self-driving cars. The future has arrived.


(En español, aquí)

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