The self-driving, or autonomous car, is going to have significant impact on our cities. I have thought that it would be positive, suggesting that "the autonomous car will likely be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them." Allison Arieff disagreed, writing "If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive."
Now Tim De Chant of the Per Square Mile blog looks at the issue, and suggests that all the attempts to encourage living closer and denser are going to be in vain, thanks to that self-driving car. Addressing comments by economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow, who thinks we will be living at higher densities:
Self-driving cars are one of the biggest threats to the future of cities, and widespread adoption could single-handedly undermine one of Baum-Snow’s most compelling arguments—commute times, which he says will be a driving force behind increasing urban densities. As incomes have risen for many city dwellers—those in the top 50 percent, at least—the value of their commute time has also risen. Given Marchetti’s constant, which says that commute times tend to hover around 30 minutes each way, snarled traffic will force the wealthy out of the suburbs and back to cities. In a sense, we’ve already started to see that.
But self-driving cars could reverse that trend. As people’s commutes are freed up for other tasks, including work, they’ll stretch their daily trips, once again allowing them to live where they want. And as we’ve seen, people want to live where they have more space.¹ Compounding the problem is the fact that most early adopters are likely to be wealthy, the same people Baum-Snow says will be looking to drive less.
After my initial burst of enthusiasm about autonomous cars, (see How the self-driving car might make our cities better and greener) I am beginning to think I got it wrong; I keep saying that young people are turning their backs on cars because they would rather look at their phone, but what if they can do both in a self-driving car? It's the ticket to Broadacre City.
More in Per Square Mile.