Will the future be “fast” or “slow”?

This article is a response to John Whitelegg’s post on WorldStreets this morning. He quotes at length from a great article written in 1933 articulating how speed and time savings with new transportation infrastructure and technology often isn’t either. I would tend to agree. In fact, it often leads to things being farther apart and the time savings being pushed off into lost time for other road users. What I want to know though is how we can build “slow” communities where everything is in close proximity in the face of high housing costs, the need for space for families, income disparities, and how to deal with the technological innovation on the horizon.

Building walkable/bikeable/transit oriented cities is great but often makes the neighborhood unaffordable. The flip side of this is that, at least in the US, people’s demands on acceptable space for raising a family are quite large as is their tolerance for traffic. Couple these two with people’s desire to be “not too far” from the city and nature and you can see the popularity of suburbs. The city still cannot compete for many. Even if desirable (not a given), it is unaffordable given the spatial “requirements” people have.

Perhaps we are starting to see a change of attitude (lead by the wealthy and educated who can afford it) to try to raise kids in the city, however many of them still move out once children hit school age. And this is really only a possibility in cities like San Francisco for highly paid, double income families. If you are in a smaller city like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, perhaps it’s a bit easier.

I also think that the bicycle is not a paragon of “slowness”. We should quickly do away with this idea. The bicycle is, in fact, a technology that enables greater speed in a competitive landscape where the alternatives are congested traffic and disaggregated transit corridors over short distances. I think the reason people are bicycling is probably more evidence of a failed transportation system and an indicator that further significant innovation is required to develop transportation that makes sense in dense urban settings. I bike for much the same people drive cars: it’s faster, easier, and more convenient than the alternatives presented to me. It’s just that I have geared my life in such a way that everything I need is biking distance (eg, proximate). I think that people’s choices in the future once they have better ones will still be primarily about speed and convenience.

I have two big concerns though.

First, I am worried that cities will become gated “sustainable” communities for the elite who can afford the luxury of a short, bikeable/bussable/walkable commute and the poor will be stuck driving the elites’ old gas guzzlers long distances. Will they be the ones paying congestion charging and high parking fees to clean the luxury urban condos of the wealthy. Or will they just stay out of the urban core entirely because it’s too expensive? Proximity is a luxury good.

Second, the technological innovation happening right now is unprecedented since Detroit 100 years ago when it comes to materials, vehicle architecture, energy, wireless connectivity, ownership and usage, etc. Silicon Valley and Paris (and parts of southern Germany) are rapidly becoming the new US and EU Detroits where new models are being explored. Presumably there are hubs in India, China, Brazil etc. but I am less familiar with them outside of Bangalore perhaps. Bicycles, motorcycles and cars are being ripped apart and refashioned into whole cloth new vehicles in much the same way that cars and motorcycles were developed. The “car” is not long for this world in its present conception. Major innovations like self-driving vehicles and wireless mesh networking promise ever greater speed, safety and convenience but possibly at the cost of even greater distances and privacy. Even more worrying, is that this discussion- or awareness- is completely absent from the broader urban planning conversations.

In other words, I think the middle class future will continue to be faster and farther away. The “slower” versions with everything in easy proximity will likely be a luxury good for the wealthy (combined, of course, with easy access to the nearest international airport), or all that the poorest citizens can afford.

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