What does the future of the city look like? Will it be full of driverless cars ferrying us about and drones delivering beer and pizza?
Probably yes, and I can’t wait, but the implications of these technologies are multi-faceted. How will these innovations affect not only commerce, but also vital city services? Driverless cars, drone delivery and on-demand transportation of all kinds opens up a number of opportunities, but they also present challenges. Equity, public versus private delivery of city services and worker displacement are key concerns.
Since the horse and buggy, there has been a fundamental relationship between vehicle and driver. Self-driving cars currently under development by Google and many other companies are seeking to invert this dynamic and turn drivers into passengers. Sounds good, right? I don’t know about you, but I never really bought into the idea of a car as freedom. Maybe I have spent too much time in traffic or perhaps it is a reflection of where I live, but the idea of sitting back and enjoying the ride appeals to me.
The positives of shared driverless cars range from more sustainable outcomes (because of less intensive use of individual vehicles) to greatly reduced traffic and driving fatalities. Combined with sensor networks, moving to a more intensive vehicle usage model—whether with taxis, on-demand car services or car-sharing programs—provide opportunities for cities to enhance data analysis of mobility patterns. This will only be intensified and enhanced through networks of driverless cars.
Enhanced data can allow cities to better anticipate additional road capacity and maintenance needs. Furthermore, driverless cars are one more powerful tool to be used to help solve the first- and last-mile problem in metro regions nationwide.
Stickier issues come into play when it comes to equity in the availability of these new modes of transportation. The preferred model for current on-demand car services like Uber and Lyft is through mobile apps, and this will likely continue with a shared driverless model.
While smartphones have become widespread, current U.S. smartphone penetration is still only at two-thirds of residents. Smartphone adoption is projected to continue rising, but there are still many users left out of a predominantly app-based transit model. When looking at those with incomes less than $30,000 a year, fewer than half own a smartphone. With these types of disparities, equity is a paramount concern that policymakers will have to address.
Public versus private delivery of vital services is another key issue. Debates continue to rage surrounding private buses in San Francisco that whisk people to and from Silicon Valley. This private service is preferable to individually owned vehicles, but unlike public transportation, it increasingly separates residents in different classes from one another. If a predominantly private driverless car system takes hold, usage and support of bus and wider transit systems could be affected. This could lead to less community support if everyone doesn’t have a strong stake in the success of public transportation modes.
Or, perhaps the preceding problem is fixed by introducing public driverless cars or even public driverless buses. Now we lead into a third major issue: What happens to all of the people currently serving as taxi and bus drivers? Worker displacement is going to be a continuing problem as innovation moves forward.
In Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s book The Second Machine Age, the authors state, "Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, even a lot of people, as it races ahead."
These types of discussions surrounding the driverless car have become common as a concept that was once considered science fiction has become science fact—kind of like drones, coming soon to a city near you.
While largely associated with military use, drones are being transformed into devices that can deliver items to your house, monitor critical infrastructure, or even film the latest NFL game. Privacy issues will certainly need to be addressed with widespread usage. However, there are many positives these devices may bring with on-demand delivery of everything from prescription drugs to diapers to dinner.
Amazon recently revealed its vague plans surrounding drone-based delivery (the company has no timeline). Dubai also came out with its own announcement on drone deliveries, experimenting with drones for official document delivery and even offering a $1 million prize for the best use in the public realm.
City leaders need to plan for the potential impact that drones and driverless cars will have on city services. New transportation and delivery options may also open up previously unknown opportunities in our cities. Future city leaders could be faced with questions like what to do with underutilized parking garages, spare street lanes, and unused on-street parking.
The National League of Cities City of the Future project will examine the future of transportation and many other important urban issues. This project will be bolstered through partnerships, data analytics, forecasting, and conversations with city leaders nationwide.
Cities want to be prepared for what is coming and inherently have a long-term perspective. Harnessing this ability, convening leaders, and developing valuable resources will be key goals of this effort, and are fundamental to building city solutions and applied research. Ultimately, the city of the future most likely will share many of the benefits of the city of the past. Proximity, density, culture, employment, and options draw people to cities. Technology will help enhance our experience, but it can’t subsume the most important piece of all: The city of the future must be a city for everyone.