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Issue #3 Welcome to the Ghost Road - an exploration of our driverless future 🚗
A review of Anthony Townsend's last book
I am trying out a new format - a book review, enriched with some links and references. Let me know if you like the idea!
🙏🏻 I am a big fan of Anthony Townsend’s analyses and contributions. A globally-recognised scholar and expert on cities and information technologies, Townsend has written one of the best book about Smart Cities I have ever read, SMART CITIES: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. He also teaches a course on Intelligent Cities in NYU’s urban planning program on smart cities (I wish I could attend his class 🤓 ).
I have always enjoyed his way of illustrating how cities and technology are intimately connected to each other. Townsend borrows many examples from history (mostly US-focused) and strikes a nice balance between Science and Technology Studies and Urban Design and Planning approaches, which is not something common in the literature.
Townsend currently researches the impact of information and communication technologies on mobility, land use, and transportation planning at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and his last book is about the hottest topic on every transportation planner’s mind 🤯 Any guess?
You got it right, it’s about AVs and the impacts they will have on our urban fabric! 🚗
Townsend’s book opens with this famous quote, aptly-chosen to describe our difficulties to grasp the consequences of a large scale deployment of AVs.
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
Roy Amara, Institute for the Future
Straight away, Townsend alerts us about self-driving technology and explains that our daily lives will change dramatically as autonomous vehicles redesign the way we work, shop and play.
Two visions seem to currently structure the debate: self-driving suburbs (individuals live in the periphery, own autonomous and electric vehicles in their garage, have access to unlimited mobility at their fingerprints - the future as it is envisioned by autonomists and corporations such as Tesla, Google or GM) and car-lite communes (cities are turned into dense and green machines where private cars are banned, streets are shared and local governments manage urban mobility systems - a vision preferred by mayors, architects and activists).
Not so hard to guess which vision gets the author’s preference.
Townsend goes on and skilfully introduces three main stories or “fables” of the mobility revolution :
Specialization - We might have been accustomed to a self-driving future filled with identical cars, moving around seamlessly. Townsend argues that this picture is wrong. “In the driverless future, vehicular variety will flourish”.
From conveyors, mules, driverless shuttles, taxibots to rovers, software trains or even civic caravans (imagine an autonomous camper trailer delivering public services on the move, such as public health, education, face-to-face administrative procedures..) or urban ushers, Townsend unleashes the diversity of autonomous engines that will populate our streets and respond, in a tailored way, to our fast-changing needs.
Precision-targeted, personalized and dynamically-priced, the future that awaits us is finally concretizing the Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) dream, creating in return new challenges for local communities to organize competition and maintain control over the urban mobility offer. Townsend gives the example of Berlin’s Jelbi, an MaaS effort launched in 2019 by the local transport operator BVG which integrates more than 20 different public and private transportation services.
Materialization - After having introduced the upcoming menagerie of autonomous vehicles, the next story is naturally about what is being moved. According to Townsend “moving people will soon take a back seat to moving stuff”. The rise of e-commerce has induced a historic surge in shipments and this pace is not likely to slow down.
Townsend introduces the concept of “continuous delivery” which I found particularly pertinent (and already part of my reality 😬 ) and also frightening (overconsumption, anyone?). AVs will finally conquer the last mile and, in doing so, reshape local businesses. Townsend takes the example of “ghost restaurants”, aka delivery depots/shared kitchens located right outside city centres that dish out cheap food to impatient clickers. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s ex-CEO, has recently launched, a ghost kitchen startup, called Cloudkitchens, right in line with a growing trend that has restaurants and chefs turning to rentable kitchen stations in a shared space to prepare food for delivery. Local economic development experts, are you ready for this?
Financialization - Townsend ends with the vast new financial markets that the driverless revolution will open. As AVs and trading algorithms start mingling, unforeseeable consequences might arise, both in terms of mobility pricing and in terms of new (or already existing) players that might claim monopoly on lucrative urban markets, at the expense of local governments. Townsend sounds the alarm in the face of powerful ride-hailing platforms and e-commerce giants who currently don’t play nice with cities.
In an AV-powered urban world, defending transit will become a tough endeavour and Townsend calls for the transformation of public transit agencies into “mobility integrators”, leading to the establishment of “transportation utilities” where local governments keep control over urban mobility systems.
In the meantime, all eyes have turned to the curb, a critical asset that cities own and can monetize, and Townsend warns about excessive financialization: “first road, then curbs - will sidewalks be the next frontier for congestion pricing?”. I just wish he could develop further here and offer some guidance to cities on how to address the complex issue of dynamic curb management.
Another interesting example mentioned by Townsend is Coord, a spin-off of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, whose business aims at mapping cities’ street regulations for future AVs and then selling back that data to cities 🤷🏻♂️ Again, a potential financial derive of the driverless future and an open door to monopolies on streets and traffic rules data management.
What does it mean for us, urban planners?
Townsend’s main idea is that AVs will exert a centripetal pull, drawing human activities back to the center (instead of a centrifugal force, as many fear).
4 planning zones will emerge from the driverless future:
- the “urban core” where automation moves more people and goods than ever, with shared streets as the main urban feature
- the “fulfilment zone”, a mix of ghost kitchens, pop-up retail spaces, distribution hubs and residential areas, the back-end of the continuous delivery
- the “microsprawl”, a densified version of the suburb, where personal rovers and software-train mass transit move people around
- the “desakota”, a new kind of hinterland, where automated farmlands “feed, maintain and entertain ever-growing cities”, as described by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas
Townsend takes inspirations from the Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism (which I haven’t read yet), developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) (an association of 86 major North American cities). The Blueprint is presented as the city planner’s playbook in the driverless age.
I would have loved to hear more about Townsend’s views on the challenges behind “shared streets” (will that even be technologically feasible one day?) versus the likeliness of “segregated networks and lanes” (the preferred approach of autonomists for obvious reasons - easier for software programming). Where do we stand today? What are our chances to tip over one version or the other?
Concept of shared streets between AVs, cyclists, pedestrians (Source: Andres Sevtsuk, Harvard GSD)
Concept of segregated networks for AVs and pedestrians (Source: Singapore’s Ministry of Transport)
All in all, Townsend brilliantly recaps the challenges, threats and opportunities of our driverless future and leaves important breadcrumbs for us to follow.
🌳 Where he falls a bit short, I feel, is in the environmental assessment of the autonomous revolution.
Townsend seems quite optimistic about driverless vehicles powering a new circular economy and supporting an optimized use of resources (land, energy, materials).
As seducing as it might look, I can’t help but doubt how AVs will help us limit our overconsumption of resources, in an already overstressed planet. The energy and environmental outcomes of AVs are deeply uncertain and it will mostly depend on the policies we pick to support our driverless future. Here is a good summary of the situation.
Induced demand (for moving people or goods) will be given a huge boost thanks to driverless vehicles. Will it be a kiss of death? Will we be forever lost in the driverless suburbs or will we reset our urban future in the car-lite communes?
And rather than fostering more mobility, shouldn’t we focus our efforts on improving access (by designing our cities to reduce the need for mobility in the first place), as Townsend briefly mentions? I wish he would have elaborated more on this crucial dilemma.
If you want to learn more about this great topic, I advise you listen to the excellent presentation of my former colleague Dr Tanvi Maheshwari who discusses an Urban Design Response to the Technological Shift in Transportation
I hope you enjoyed this review! Feel free to share it around you 🙏🏻
What should I read next ? #bookworm 🤓