The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Robert Bruegmann on Driverless Cars


I loved Robert Bruegmann’s intelligent discussion of how driverless cars might shape the urban future:

Suppose an individual can summon a vehicle on demand — a small capsule like a golf cart for doing errands in the city, for example, or something more like a van to transport a track team to another city — and that vehicle can go directly from starting point to destination. The flexibility this system could provide might well reduce the incentive for owning an automobile, which has to serve all purposes, is expensive to buy and maintain, and in most cases spends most of its time taking up valuable space in a garage or parking lot.

If the driverless car reduces congestion by maximizing the use of existing highways and taking passengers farther and faster with greater comfort, it could lead to even more dispersed cities. But it could also have the opposite effect.

Given the large amount of space devoted to roads and parking in American cities, even minor increases in collective use of vehicles could lead to less need for new pavement and parking and to higher residential and commercial densities. This would reinforce a trend that is already visible, as new development at the far suburban edge of most urban regions is currently being created at higher densities than in the past and there is a great deal of infill in city centers and close-in suburbs.

Bruegmann also takes aim at those who seek to retrofit cities to fit some favored mode of transportation:

A place to start is the widely held, but dubious, assumption that we should plan our cities around some particular transportation system. To facilitate buses and trains, many people advocate turning the clock backward and creating a denser urban fabric of the kind that was necessary for 19th-century industrial cities. There is nothing wrong with living in this way if it is what most people choose to do. The arrival of the automobile, however, gave urban dwellers a great deal more mobility and flexibility in how they lived, and a large number opted for more dispersed settlements.

The driverless car could well extend that flexibility in dramatic fashion, combining some characteristics of automobiles and public transportation and allowing people more choice in the way they live, whether it involves more compact, high-density cities, more dispersed low-density settlements — call it sprawl if you like — or, perhaps most likely, all of the above.

I strongly recommend Bruegmann’s excellent, contrarian history of urban sprawl.


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