How will self-driving cars affect our cities? Two views

The future they want
via Closer than we think: The future with self-driving cars

Phil Levin thinks it will change real estate completely; Christian Wolmar thinks it is ludicrous tech nerd fantasy.

Phil Levin, a "ponderer of the future", has been pondering self-driving cars, aka autonomous vehicles or AVs. He thinks that they are going to change our cities and turn the real estate industry upside down, making sprawl country much more desirable. He believes that $1 trillion of real estate is on the move.

The bottom line: We are going to see a broad shift of value from properties where “convenience” (e.g. good commute, short distance from center) is priced positively into their value to properties where “inconvenience” (e.g. bad commute) is priced in negatively.

He thinks it is going to happen sooner than we think, because people anticipate change. "An example of this is when a neighborhood begins to change on the mere announcement of a transit project, rather than its completion. This means property values may shift 5–10 years before AVs really hit the road, aka … now."

Now one could argue that point, given that we all know what streetcars are, they exist, so if a new line is promised, we know what is coming. Nobody knows what and when is coming with AVs. But Levin concludes that "champions of urbanization should be alarmed."

coverChristian Wolmar/Screen capture

Being an alarmed champion of urbanism, I looked for alternative views and discovered Driverless Cars: On a road to nowhere by Christian Wolmar, just released on January 18 by the London Publishing Partnership. Wolmar is a politician, journalist and writer of more than a dozen books about transportation, primarily about rail. He does not believe that driverless cars are going to change the world. He doesn't even acknowledge their existence.

Indeed, at the moment there is no such thing as a driverless car, as I mentioned above. My test of true driverlessness is a vehicle that would be capable of taking a passenger to their office before returning home to whisk the kids to school. Indeed, we are nowhere near that. It is decades away and it may never be possible because of some of the issues raised in this book. The obstacles – technological, social, practical, economic, regulatory, legal – are legion.

This post is most concerned about the effect of AVs on our cities and the people in them, and the problems there are legion too. There are lots of people in cities, and the cars are going to have to be programmed so as not to kill them.

There is what I dub ‘the Holborn problem’. Every weekday evening there are so many people around Holborn tube station in central London that they spill into the very busy Kingsway and High Holborn streets. It is nightly chaos. If these people discovered, however, that the cars could not move until they got out of the way, there would be permanent gridlock. The people would take over the streets. The only solution therefore would be far stricter restrictions on pedestrians, something that in an urban context would be highly damaging, turning all streets into priority zones for vehicles.

The Holborn problem, in particular, is going to cause the most dramatic changes in our cities.

Fenced street in LondonFenced street in London/ Katherine Martinko/CC BY 2.0

The Holborn problem might require huge stretches of fencing on city streets to prevent jaywalking, which is hugely damaging to the urban realm as it encourages speeding and makes walking far more difficult. That is why Boris Johnson took down miles of fencing across London when he was mayor. In other words, autonomous cars might be the catalyst for all kinds of restrictions, rather than a force for freedom. They could be the excuse to pen in pedestrians, restrict cyclists, prioritize autonomous vehicles over conventional ones, and turn cities into driverless rat-runs.

He concludes that there is no good reason to be promoting them over alternatives that can reduce traffic or make the roads safer, such as banning private cars from city centres, having congestion charges, or "cities could create high-frequency bus and tram networks with complete priority along main roads and then provide cheap taxi services to get people the last mile or two to their destination."

People want their own cars since they are allowed to drive them everywhere freely. Take that right away, such as through banning vehicles in major city centres, and they may well all sign up to Uber or its rivals. But they could do that now, without needing the vehicles to be driverless. The push for autonomy is borne of a desire to promote a technology that will be highly profitable for the tech and auto companies – it has nothing to do with freeing up road space or making life better for road users.

The reality is probably somewhere in between Phil Levin, who says AVs "will cause us to reexamine fundamental assumptions of how we live," and Christian Wolmar, who says "it is unclear how driverless cars will help address any of the fundamental problems created by our car culture."

But it is undeniable that Wolmar's approach to fixing our urban problems -- investing in transit and cycling, promoting walkable cities, is technically a lot easier and is in fact proven in many European cities, rather than waiting for what he calls "technology that nobody has asked for, that will not be practical, and that will have many damaging effects."

How will self-driving cars affect our cities? Two views
Phil Levin thinks it will change real estate completely; Christian Wolmar thinks it is ludicrous tech nerd fantasy.

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