By Pascal Mittermaier
In the late 1890s, most major cities depended on horses for daily urban transport. London had 11,000 passenger cabs pulled by more than 50,000 horses every day. New York had twice that many. A major side effect, of course, was huge amounts of manure – up to 35 pounds per horse per day, resulting in millions of pounds annually and reaching crisis levels in many cities. Historian Edwin Burrows writes that city planners at one point believed urban civilization was doomed, as streets and neighborhoods would by buried in over 10 feet of manure.
Of course, this didn’t happen, as horses were replaced by cars. But while cars eliminated the manure, they brought their own crises. Asphalt, concrete, freeways and parking have dramatically changed the urban landscape over the past 100 years, often to the detriment of people. And endless traffic and car emissions have now generated dangerous levels of air pollution, impacting our health and threatening the concept of sustainable living in cities.
Enter the driverless electric car, poised to become mainstream in the coming decades, taking millions of private gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles off the road. Could driverless cars improve how we live in cities and make urban living more sustainable? And could they have particularly positive impact on nature in cities, helping cities to become resilient, flourishing urban centers where people want to live?
Driverless cars are part of the new digital age: sophisticated software makes them autonomous and lets us order them on command. Urban and suburban residents won’t have to own cars when a large pool of vehicles can circulate throughout the city based on demand, making for much more efficient use of the cars.
Most notably, cars wouldn’t be driven for a couple of hours and then left parked for 20+ hours every day. This could completely transform the need for street or underground parking and allow us to rethink all the current “dead” parking spaces. More efficient vehicle use could also mean we won’t need the same number of multi-lane highways running through our city downtowns. Like with parking spaces, these newly liberated lanes could be repurposed for green space—parks, urban farms, trees to cool our streets.
Imagine only one or two lanes of New York City or London’s avenues being used. Imagine the multiple ring roads of Beijing or Mexico City down to a few well-circulating lanes. More efficient, better-coordinated traffic could surely be a major step in making downtown areas much more livable. A recent paper by London development planner Stelios Rodoulis predicts that not only would there be lower emissions levels, there would be less clutter, fewer signs, no street parking … all this new space could be rethought to dramatically improve inner city living.
The barriers to this future city are less technological than social. And just like with the advent of the car, there will be exciting opportunities but also countless unforeseen challenges. But the prospect is exciting.
For example, the repurposed space could make room for additional housing that is denser and taller to accommodate the more than 2 billion new urban residents expected in the next 35 years. Neighborhoods could be rethought in ensure they are walkable and cycle-friendly, and provide connectivity on a much more human (not car!) scale. Carlo Ratti of MIT’s Senseable City Lab suggests that we could use large parts of the new space to build much needed parks and public spaces.
We could also grow more food in downtown areas that were previously dedicated to parked cars, which would reduce some of our current distribution requirements, and thus reduce miles traveled by trucks. We could plant more trees to create better shade and help filter pollution and fine particles, creating healthier neighborhoods.
We could plant green infrastructure, such as bio-swales and rain gardens, to help manage polluted urban storm water run-off, improving urban resilience. And we could make sure that cities are places where both nature and people thrive, including biodiversity corridors that help wildlife navigate through the city rather than view it as an obstacle.
Most importantly, the increased urban nature could reconnect us with our roots and reconnect us with the power of nature as a critical element for health, wellbeing, productivity and spirituality. The post-war focus on cars has often created grey, hostile environments, unhealthy for humans and unsustainable for urban centers where people want to live. Why not use the potential of this new form of transportation to rethink the potential of nature in cities?
Many questions remain: Will the sheer numbers of new city residents negate any potential benefits? Will more people simply “drive” more in this new format, rather than using efficient public transportation? Some already blame on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft for reductions in public transit ridership, though others see the equation as more complex. What about emissions? Driverless cars aren’t just passenger vehicles—they are buses, garbage trucks, ambulances. And all of this has to be carefully coordinated with increased cycling and walking for a truly sustainable transportation plan.
Even so, there’s little doubt that driverless vehicles are the future of our cities, and environmentalists have the power to influence how we use this new technology to benefit both people and nature. Technology isn’t the enemy—it can help us develop dense, well-planned, thriving sustainable cities that don’t sprawl into the countryside, threatening biodiversity. Nature in the city will feed urban resilience and sustainability, creating the kind of environment where people want to live and work, but only if we create the sort of city where natural and technological solutions work in harmony.