The WRONG way to mix self driving cars and city planning


What comes first? Cities that exist, or cars that don’t, and maybe shouldn’t?

The WRONG way to mix self driving cars and city planning /img/traffic-jam.jpg

I just came across a Memo To City Planners Contemplating Robocars, and the related comments that…. seem pretty weak.

The starting point of the article is the dogma that autonomous cars are coming:

“City and transportation planners… have been told (correctly) that robocars will cause major changes to how people move around cities, and require a great deal of rethinking when it comes to planning and transit.”

Wrong priorities

The author mentions, but does not stress enough how much self driving cars are, er… not Coming Soon. But even if that problem did not exist, I find the starting question to be weak:

“Since you can’t be sure of the date they will arrive, how does a city planner deal with making plans they know will be wrong?”

It eventually comes to an acceptable answer, but almost by mistake. “How to accomodate cities to robocars” is the wrong question. The right questions for any serious city planner are, in this order:

  • What does actually need fixing, or doing, in this city?
  • What is the right strategy to do that?
  • Can robocars (or any other technology) be a part of that solution?

Microchips are not cars

From the article, again:

Q: “How do you plan when a plan from 2020 is almost certainly deeply wrong by 2030?”

A: “The answer of how to plan comes from the one industry that has had to live with constant change in the world under it’s feet - the computer industry… Imagine planning cities and transit if vehicles or construction or fuel cost 11,000th the price every 15 years, and kept doing that, decade after decade.”

Had that happened, we would have no need for further city planning. We’d be already dead of traffic congestion and air pollution. But that is not my main issue with that article.

The author is right to say that city planners should “keep infrastructure as simple as possible”.

But it is naive to compare cities with products, that, besides not clogging the streets, are hugely more versatile than cars, or transportation systems in general. Products that, more and more frequently, have value only thanks to the immaterial software, that can be deployed almost for free.

So, it is right to propose for cities the “same base design the Internet had in the 1980s, known as the “stupid network.”

Yes to simple roads, yes to Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTs) that are much more flexible than urban trains, and can graciously leave way to SOMTs, I mean: pods, if needed.

But the reason to go for that simplicity cannot to be ready to rebuild cities every other years, with the same or similar frequencies with which people wrongly change smartphones. Or to continue to believe that there can or should be as many private cars around as today, regardless of who or what drives them.

What makes hillsides lovely?

Side note: Some of the future scenarios that city planners should deal with seem… not even wrong:

(from the comments): “If you can have a lovely hillside/hilltop estate and still be downtown in 15 minutes, and in a nice play to walk and shop in 5, that’s going to be the best of both worlds for a lot of home buyers.”

Reality: Hillside estate is a) scarce, b) lovely only until it contains few people, that is even scarcer. What are we talking about here? solutions that work, or solutions for elites only?

Image sources: * Tsahi Levent-Levi on Flickr, Creative Commons License * Wikimedia Commons

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