Moving Through The Cities of the Future

This feature was written for Medill’s 383 Health and Science Reporting Class.

One hundred years ago, cars were just becoming popular, and our cities began moving away from horse-based transportation. Fifty years ago, the car had become ubiquitous, the most common method of transport in America, with urban planning to match. The suburbs emerged, and places like Los Angeles spread out, highways emerging, to accommodate the flux of personal vehicles. So how will we move through the cities of the future, given what we know about today’s technology?

“That’s the multi-trillion dollar question,” says Andy Yan, an adjunct professor and urban planning researcher at The University of British Columbia. “It’s not going to look like what it looks like now. It can’t,” he says. In fifty years, we’ll likely have cities connected by tubular trains, filled with self-driving cars and bikers and walkers, and run by all-knowing computer networks.

Yan points to Copenhagen, Portland, and Seattle as cities that are particularly forward-thinking. For example, the concentration of bicycling in Copenhagen makes for a more sustainable and ecologically friendly environment. But he’s careful to note that Copenhagen is one of the friendliest cities for bicycles in large part because of the city’s inherited general layout and flat terrain.

If there’s one thing Yan is certain of, it’s that the future “won’t be car dependent; it can’t be car dependent.” Cities like Portland and Seattle invest heavily in public transportation, leading urban planners to similar concepts that are more beneficial to the environment. We might not even want to plan for cars at all. Counter-intuitively, converting freeways into public space has the capacity to reduce inner city traffic dramatically. When there aren’t many places to drive, people end up using more sustainable forms of transport, like biking and walking. In Seoul, officials removed a freeway and converted the space into a popular public park and riverwalk, while reducing traffic congestion.

But companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber are betting that the cities of the future will feature cars in some form. In fact, joining these tech companies is just about every major car company in America, each working diligently on semi-autonomous vehicles. At the head of the pack is Tesla, which thinks its cars will be able to drive themselves from Los Angeles to New York City by the end of this year.

Alexander Martin, a project manager for Northwestern’s Solar Car Team, is a bit more cautious about that ambitious timeline. “The jury’s still out,” he says, but “there’s a good chance that we’ll have self-driving cars” taking over the cities of the future. Martin thinks the cars will end up being smaller as well, as people begin to migrate from suburbs to cities and won’t need as many large, hulking vehicles.

The cars we drive today could become the new horses. In the future, you might not be able to drive your own car unless you’re rich, and even then, you’ll probably still have to go out to the countryside to do so.

After all, self-driving cars will end up being much safer for society — Tesla estimates that since implementing their semi-autonomous car technology, accidents have fallen 40 percent. Safety, efficiency, and cost are the main drivers behind the push for self-driving cars, resulting in many leaders, including President Obama advocating for their development.

I also asked Martin to imagine what else could be different, safer, or more efficient, looking around a city like Chicago in fifty years. There was a long pause, followed by “Now I know what Jules Verne felt like.” It’s a tough question for folks in the engineering space, who stay grounded in actualities. Still, Martin can see a future where light rail systems are upgraded with magnets to reduce resistance, making the Metra speedier and more energy efficient.

Martin also thinks that we’ll see some sort of Hyperloop that will not only transport folks from city to city, but will revolutionize the shipping industry. So what’s a Hyperloop?

The Hyperloop is an evolution on trains — shuttles that hover in tubes to reduce air resistance. It was envisioned by Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, and one of the fathers of self-driving cars. The result is a “new way to move people and things at airline speeds for the price of a bus ticket,” according to the company Hyperloop One. In the future, we might be able to use one to travel from Los Angeles to New York in just a few hours. But a potentially more common use is the ability to transport cargo, reducing the amount of energy burned by shipping stuff in large planes across the country. A network of tubes could end up replacing much of our long-distance shipping and travel in fifty years.

mockup of Hyperloop from National Geographic

Aaron Pikus, a project manager at Purdue’s Hyperloop initiative, is considerably excited about this future. “The big advantage of the Hyperloop is that it’s very fast, and very efficient,” he says, which makes it great for transportation between large cities. Pikus says in fifty years, he could see them becoming prevalent, replacing freight trains with this tubular invention. But Pikus is careful to say that the Hyperloop might not become the primary way to transport goods across the country.

Self driving trucks, he notes, will no doubt play a role in the future of transporting stuff. We might even see drones assist with transport, a future that Amazon is currently working towards. It’s easy to imagine your local FedEx driver replaced with a self-driving truck and a drone to transport packages from the vehicle to your doorstep. But even though drones can carry humans, we’ll still probably remain on the ground for most of our traveling. After all, it’s easier and safer to accept gravity.

Alexander Martin, the solar car guy, also had some ideas about the shipping of the future. Within cities, Martin says, “I imagine that shipment by drone would win out over shipment by tube.” And “as automated manufacturing, automated processes expand, you’re going to need less people in the same place to do business.”

This means that the factories of the future might be smaller, and closer to the people buying their wares. Between regular printers, and 3D printers, it’s not difficult to imagine Amazon’s warehouses turning into “hubs of automation” and on-demand suppliers, printing the book or doorstop you ordered a few blocks away from your apartment. But this future might scare today’s blue collar workers.

After all, it seems like machines have been killing jobs for centuries, and workers have every reason to be concerned. It doesn’t help when Elon Musk, one of the fathers of self-driving vehicles, is proclaiming that soon robots will destroy the job market and a universal base income will become necessary.

Don’t forget that he’s a “salesman” says Todd Murphey, a professor of robotics at Northwestern University. Murphey says that we shouldn’t believe the hype surrounding the future robotic economic collapse, pointing out that the advent of ATMs faced a similar reaction. Concerned bank tellers were worried that machines would quickly replace humans, and computers would take over the future of jobs. Indeed, the number of workers per branch decreased, but the actual number of job opportunities increased as more branches opened. ATMs changed how and where bank tellers worked, but it didn’t kill the job market.

The jobs of the future will be similarly shifted. As automation and technology removes the need for quite so much manual labour, the nature of our work will shift toward intellectual, creative, and service-based economies. Murphey says that for the most part, we won’t compete with machines for jobs, but instead work with them in a marriage of skills.

And some urban planners envision communities as self-sustaining environments that combine residential, commercial, public, and working space. Hudson Yards, a development in New York City, is building “the quintessential live-work-play environment,” says Jessica Scaperotti, an overseer on the project. This sort of combination living space reduces the need for daily public transport, creating an environment where you can have everything you need within walking distance. As cities grow, and become more densely populated, we’ll see more of these microcosms emerge.

Andy Yan, the city planner from earlier, believes that connecting is a major linchpin of our future cities, whether it be between neighbors, strangers, or communities. The cities of the future will have “multiple means to connect; whether physically or socially,” which is interesting given how much our earbuds and phones have begun to create barriers to the outside world.

Yan’s point of connectivity is a reminder of Steve Jobs’ redesign of the Pixar Headquarters. Jobs’ vision was a campus that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations” by creating a central atrium shared by the entire work force, instead of segregating different teams in different buildings. It’s interesting to apply this idea to an entire city, designing for more unplugged, impromptu conversations with other people, instead of the plugged in society we’re heading towards.

The most compelling urban thought leaders for Yan are the folks behind the Google-created Sidewalk Labs, a company dedicated to incorporating technology and data into the cities of the future. They’re asking the question “What if we built a city for the internet?” says Yan. That’s a loaded question.

Sidewalk Labs is working on a number of urban based projects, but the most interesting is Flow, an initiative designed to help cities capture and process information about what’s happening on the streets. Flow is partnering with urban planners to integrate sensors and satellite imagery to learn about how people use transport, especially with driving and parking.

By knowing everything there is to know about our cities, Flow believes it can help reshape urban environments, redesigning parking, bike lanes, and various infrastructure to better serve humans in the future. Indeed, it seems certain that the cities of tomorrow will be data-rich, and all-knowing, thanks to a barrage of sensors, cameras, and networks designed to process urban life in real time.

Professor Hani Mahmassani, a Chair in Transportation at Northwestern University agrees with this vision. He points to Stockholm as an early example, which is reducing traffic and congestion with a dynamic tax that responds to driving patterns and collected data. The city is working towards that “all-knowing” utopia Sidewalk Labs is building, with the responsive tax as a first step. When a driver enters the city, they’re automatically charged a fee dependent on the amount of traffic in the city. Since implementing this, Stockholm has reduced inner city traffic by 25 percent, and lowered emissions by 14 percent since implementing the congestion charge.

It’s clear that the technology behind urban planning, autonomous vehicles, and other forms of transport keeps improving at an impressive rate. We’ll see a shift in economic activity, and our lives will change for the better. Of course some folks aren’t that hopeful. After one interview, I asked an eavesdropper with a “Bernie” sticker on his backpack what he believed the cities of future would look like. “Demolished. Gone,” he said. ■

If you’re looking for something more on the future of cities, might I suggest this film from Oscar Boyson:

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technology, UX, and communications

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