The following is an excerpt from an article by Joel Kotkin and Alan M. Berger that was originally published by Forbes. This article highlights some of the changes that will transform the suburbs in the no-so-distant future, many of which the the INS has been discussing for years. Advancements in autonomous vehicles, emission-free vehicles, and drone delivery services will change the way that we think about suburban life, and will change everything from streetscapes to perceptions. Read more about what Kotkin and Berger have to say below:
Suburbs have largely been dismissed by environmentalists and urban planners as bad for the planet, a form that needed to be eliminated to make way for a bright urban future. Yet, after a few years of demographic stultification amid the Great Recession, Americans are again heading to the suburbs in large numbers, particularly millennials.
So rather than fight the tide and treat suburbanization as an evil to be squeezed out, perhaps a better approach would be to modify the suburban form in ways that address its most glaring environmental weakness: dependence on gas-powered automobiles. The rise of ride-sharing, electric cars and ultimately the self-driving automobile seem likely to alter this paradigm. In most other ways, suburbs are at the least no more damaging than dense cities, and they are superior in terms of air quality, maintaining biodiversity, carbon sequestration and stormwater management.
We may well be on the verge of evolving a new kind of highly sustainable, near–zero carbon form, one linked by technology, and economically (and increasingly culturally) self-sufficient. Autonomous cars will remotely park in solar-charged sheds off-site, to be called to the home through handheld devices, thus eliminating the need for garages and driveways. With safer vehicles that can see and react to situations better, roadways will be designed with much less paving to mitigate stormwater runoff and flooding. Homes will have drone delivery ports built in, greatly reducing the number of daily household trips and congestion. With much less redundant paving and more undisturbed land, autonomous suburbs will expand parks, bike trails and farms, and reduce forest fragmentation. Some of the next generation of suburbs will be anchored by main street districts, some of them restored, while others will be built from scratch, as we have seen in places like the Woodlands outside Houston and Valencia north of Los Angeles.
Taming the car
The traditional urbanist view of suburbs is that, if they must exist, they should be linked by mass transit to the city core. But in the U.S., outside of a handful of older cities, transit ridership is stagnant or in decline despite billions in investment from federal and local sources. In Europe, where bullet trains efficiently link suburbs to cities, strict local and national land use policies and high tax subsidies block development of peripheral land, making compact city forms possible. The U.S. has no national land use policy and we highly doubt voters will agree to much higher taxes to protect peripheral lands from development. Our vast geography allows us to spread out: The U.S. is more than 2.5 times the size of the E.U.
Simply put, the advantages of private transportation are, for the most part, too compelling in a country dominated by long distances and dispersed development. Elon Musk recently shared a brutally honest critique of mass transit. “It’s a pain in the ass,” he said. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
In fact, no regional rail system has managed to make any sort of dent in car use. Since 2000, the increase in workers driving alone has been 15 times the increase in those using transit. Even the Progressive Policy Institute, a research organization affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, has noted, "The shortest distance between a poor person and a job is along a line driven in a car."
Los Angeles, hailed by the amen crew in the media as the “next great transit city” has experienced a considerable decrease in overall transit ridership over the last few years. Transit’s share of work trips has stalled in such diverse markets as Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and, remarkably, the transit mecca of Portland.
Meanwhile, instead of jumping on trains, thirty-something millennials are buying cars in huge numbers, heading toward the suburbs and starting families. Road travel this year hit a record, as it has the last five years. The increased popularity of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft has been cited as a factor in the recent ridership declines in Los Angeles and even on the New York subway. It is also being cited as one reason why new extensions of Boston’s transit system may no longer be needed.
With the assumption that private transportation will prevail, we need to come up with different solutions to reduce greenhouse gases within the context of suburbia. Renewable technologies in the home and much more tree planting can greatly offset carbon consumption, but workforce behavior also needs to change. One piece of the puzzle is the expansion of work at home. Demographer Wendell Cox has found that the share of the U.S. population that works from home has more than doubled since 1980 and now approximates the share that commute to work via mass transit, exceeding it easily outside of New York. The growth of home-based work, which requires no commute, may be the quickest solution to reducing greenhouse gases.
And how about the transit dependent? Ride-sharing technology for transit dependent populations could prove both more cost effective and less time consuming. For example, in suburban San Francisco a transit operator has established a one-year pilot program to subsidize local ridesharing services and has canceled a lightly patronized bus route, reducing costs. Ride-sharing could also compliment public transit in the future, rather than replace it.
All these strategies could potentially reduce greenhouse gases far faster than the fanciful attempts of planners, notably in California, to reduce suburbanization and impose forced densification. A recent Berkeley study suggests that 1.9 million new housing units be built only in infill locations, about 4 percent of the state, saving about 1.8 million metric tons of California greenhouse gas emissions per year from reduced driving. This is less than 1 percent of the new 2030 reductions mandated by the state, and statistically meaningless compared with current annual worldwide emissions of 49,000 million metric tons.
You ain’t seen nothing yet
America’s next suburban wave will be driven by technology, smart devices and Internet-of-things connectivity between cars, roads and homes, offer significant potential breakthroughs, particularly if shaped by the public need, not those of large tech firms. Roy Amara, the late president of the Institute for the Future has said, "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. Self-driving cars are as much of a paradigm shift as the invention of the telephone, and we all need to get prepared for the ride of our lives.”
Americans continue to move, for the most part, to less congested, less dense areas with lower levels of transit service and away from the more tightly packed areas with better transit service, and autonomous vehicles will likely exacerbate this trend. By one estimate, as much as a trillion dollars of real estate value could swing to locations far from job centers that will become more attractive due to autonomous vehicles while reducing the “premium” now awarded to closer in neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.
A recent report by the global consulting firm Bain & Co. predicts that technological advances such as the autonomous car will help to create a “post-urban economy” that will be more localized and home-based. By 2025, its analysts write, fewer people could live in urban cores than in exurbs, which it defines as "beyond the traditional commuting belt."
Bill Gates’ proposed new city in Arizona, which will feature these new technologies, is located on the far fringes of the Phoenix area-- to the predictable horror of ‘smart growth’ advocates.
Over time, the autonomous car could make even more revolutionary impacts on both the urban form and transit. Automated car proponents claim that the cost of operations will be considerably below that of today’s cars. If that should be achieved, the autonomous car could be used to provide door-to-door mobility not only for the elderly and disabled, but also for people who currently cannot afford their own cars. Under any circumstances, this innovation seems certain to further weaken conventional transit outside the cities with legacy cores. In the future, mass transit will be able to geographically refocus its resources on the most dense cores to provide better service, rather than spreading less dollars per square mile, and poorer service, everywhere.
There is considerable disagreement about how soon autonomous vehicles will become commonplace, but development activity is proceeding at a fast pace. There are currently 50 companies testing 387 autonomous vehicles in California alone, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
The sunniest optimists suggest that by 2030 the conversion to autonomous vehicles will be nearly complete. Other researchers predict the roll out of autonomous cars is going to proceed at a modest pace, with total sales in 2035 equaling only one-quarter of present world production.
Despite these disagreements about the pace of change, our way of life, both in cities and suburbs, is being radically transformed. What we need to do now is envision how to design the fully autonomous, low-carbon suburb so that water, air and natural landscapes can be preserved in ways better than we have been capable of in the past.