Le Corbusier, in his seminal 1925 book The City of Tomorrow declared, “The motor car has completely overturned all our old ideas of town planning”. Almost 100 years later, we are at a similar turning point, with the rise of autonomous vehicles and the demand for urban transport creating a perfect storm — and a perfect challenge — in how city planners approach the plans for the new neighbourhood.
Self-driving vehicles have caught not only the imagination, they threaten to change the very nature of transportation. Currently, vehicles stay idle on average more than 90 per cent of the time, according to a recent paper commissioned by MIT. As these autonomous vehicles enter the system, they dramatically reduce the population of cars and therefore fuel usage, congestion and other externalities.
A Harvard study estimates that for every shared car, there will be a removal of up to nine cars from the streets. In a city like Singapore (and soon Dubai), the entire transportation needs could be met by 30 per cent of its existing car fleet. Whilst these concepts are hard to comprehend, it appears that these might be a reality within a 15-20 year time frame, similar to the revolution unleashed by the internal combustion engine.
These changes have dramatic implications for the urban infrastructure of the city. Consider parking for instance: in any urban city, parking spaces occupy between 6-10 per cent of the urban landscape, an area that is currently expanding at double-digit rates. If more vehicles were shared, we would need dramatically fewer paring spaces and lots.
Over time, these valuable areas of urban land would need to be redeveloped to create a whole new spectrum of social services, ranging from public amenities such as parks, bike lanes and fitness trails, to the building of new accommodation, especially affordable and mid-income housing, as parking lots start to become unviable. This was very much a key takeaway in a study by the city of San Francisco.
This re-allocation of urban land promises to make downtown areas more efficiently circulated, as the costs of congestion go down, and on the other, looks to increase density as valuable tracts of land get snapped up by private sector developers looking to maximise yield.
Autonomous vehicles also promise to push the drive towards “suburbia”, another event foreseen by Le Corbusier in his 1941 book “The Four Routes”, where he stated “the railway converted the cities into true magnets; they filled and swelled without control, and the countryside was abandoned. Luckily, the automobile, through the organisation of roads, will re-establish this broken harmony and start the repopulation of the countryside”.
Trial and error
Given self-autonomous cars, and the fact that people can sleep whilst commuting, it is likely that the push for suburban neighbourhoods will increase, especially as people strive to look for more economical neighbourhoods. Currently, far-flung communities would be far more easily accessible, and this would have the effect of reducing the price differential between downtown neighbourhoods and their suburban counterparts. In Dubai, it is likely that both these forces will exert themselves over the next decade as this revolutionary technology starts to get mainstream usage. Newer masterplanned communities are already starting to incorporate some of thee dynamics into their planning, although it is likely that there will be some amount of trial and error before neighbourhoods start to settle. This relates to both the technological as well as the urban planning aspect of the equation.
The sharing economy and the advances in communication will likely spawn the drastic decline of the private (and public) parking space industry. And from a real estate development perspective, promises to usher in an exciting era of redevelopment.
Dubai, in most areas of urban architecture and infrastructure, has been ahead of the curve, and it will come as little surprise if this trend is also adopted by city planners and urban and suburban developers within the next five years. The overall mission of human settlements and cities remains the same now as it did at its inception — bringing us together.
Newer technologies should facilitate that purpose.
The writer is Managing Director of Global Capital Partners.