Moving Cities Past the Automobile
Long ago, cities were compact because people had to walk. Even after horses and carriages became commonplace, they weren't the fastest modes of travel and a horse could only go so far in a day if it was expected to get up and move again the next.
Then came the car. Most American cities, especially the further west or south you go, were built around the car and all of its conveniences, and the result is that our stuff is really far apart. Walking in most cities is a hopeless task if you live in the suburbs, and living downtown significantly increases your cost of living.
When the population explodes in a car-centric city, more people and cars are added to the mix and you get the kind of traffic that causes headaches, delays, and road rage. Most people would agree that screaming at a fellow driver isn't the best way to start your work day.
But it seems we're reaching a tipping point. There are too many people and too many cars in too few lanes on too many roads. Cities like LA and DC have nightmarish traffic, and as fun as it is to have the freedom of a car at your disposal, the guilt of somehow contributing to global warming is always looming, and that huge hunk of metal is parked over 90% of the time anyway.
This is a problem that serial entrpreneur Elon Musk seems to spend about 25 hours a day worrying about. His ideas range from solar panel roof tiles and autonomous cars to his most recent and most absurd: giant driving tunnels underneath LA. While Musk probably needs to cool his jets and focus on one issue at a time, he's not the only one trying to solve these problems.
Musk's car company Tesla has been investing in autonomous driving technology for a while, and lately big players like Google, Ford, and Uber are taking it much more seriously as well. The general idea is that a car, equipped with cameras, sensors, and a really smart computer, would come by and pick you up, take you where you need to go, and then leave. In most visions of this future, there's no driver in the car and there's no need for car ownership. You as the passenger could sit back, read a book, take a nap, and show up at work in a perfectly rested mood since you didn't have to battle every other driver through traffic.
Sure, some people are hesitant to put their life in the hands of a computer driving a potentially lethal vehicle, but the technology has been progressing at leaps and bounds over the past few years and it's becoming shockingly good. A recent MIT study showed that just one autonomous car on the road could reduce traffic congestion by as much as 40%.
Any new technology takes some time to catch on, but this is one that could alter practically every aspect of modern life. It's important to remember, after all, that people were hesitant to trust elevators once upon a time too.
Hyperloop One, a company also borne from one of Musk's ideas but not actually involving him, wants to build huge tubes across the world. Essentially you'd get in a pod that would zip through these tubes at something like 700 mph, drastically reducing your commute time. Oft-traveled corridors like Dallas to Houston or LA to San Francisco would reduce from a handful of hours to mere minutes. The problem here is that these would be above-ground tubes, and when you talk about building hundreds of miles of tubes you've got to ask 1) who pays for it and 2) how do you possibly get all of those landowners on board.
It's easy to see how transformative this idea could be. For one, people working in expensive metros like San Francisco would have a lot more freedom to live further out. Reliance on cars and airlines would lessen, and Hyperloop One is even talking about implementing the idea to ease international travel. New York to Beijing in two hours? Sign us up.
All of these new transportation companies sound great and all, but what about the city itself? These innovations would undoubtedly transform the city, but even then we've still got the same old concrete and the same old buildings. Or do we?
Sidewalk Labs is a company aiming to make cities smarter. Already implementing superfast wifi kiosks in New York City, they're now tackling a 12-acre strip in downtown Toronto, building it smarter from the ground up. These efforts include autonomous transit, ubiquitious high-speed internet, and sensors everywhere. Other companies are even experimenting with embedding solar panels in roads.
Ford recently rebranded itself as a transportation company, saying there simply isn't room in our cities for everyone to have a car anymore. And when you don't have a car, you don't have car payments, you don't have to have that big garage at home, and - most importantly - you don't need parking garages downtown.
This last point is huge when you consider that parking takes up a third of some cities' entire land area. If a majority of workers relied on autonomous vehicles, those parking lots could become restaurants or stores - or even new parks that would lessen the heat island effect.
All in all, it seems time that our cities cater more to people than to the cars the people travel in.