Emerging and Converging technologies will transform cities into something that looks and feels much different than it does today. Because our lives are so closely tied to the cities that we live and work in, these changes will profoundly impact us.

This is part one of a five-part series on the near-future of cities. In each one, I’ll explore current trends and technologies to pay attention to, anticipate some changes they could bring, and finally identify some actions that policy makers and citizens can take to help their city be more future-resilient. In this post, I’ll cover how changes in transportation could transform cities more than the invention of the Model T.

No Parking, No Problem
Currently, people driving themselves and then parking is the direct cause of a wide variety of problems for cities but we don’t often realize it because driving is so ingrained in American culture. Does it really make sense to drive by yourself from your home to your work and then leave your car sitting in a lot or garage unused all day? Probably not. Even with no traffic and a designated parking spot waiting for you when you arrive, it still doesn’t make sense, especially when you multiply this activity over the thousands or even millions of others doing the exact same thing in your city each work day.

Traffic is a frustrating problem, and the lack of parking in city centers can be a major contributing factor. In fact, at any given time, as much as 30% of traffic in congested downtown areas is simply drivers looking for parking (at least in large cities). This is obviously a huge problem: it causes enough frustration for drivers that some may skip coming downtown altogether, it contributes to the pollution problem being acutely felt by many cities today, and constantly congested roads are not conducive to a pleasant environment in which to live and work.

To make matter worse, once we do finally arrive at our destination and find a parking spot, we leave our expensive assets to depreciate in peace while we run our errands or settle in for an eight or nine-hour workday. All this parking has a cost. We’ve ceded vast amounts of prime real estate and even living space (think garages and driveways) to convenience. All to let our cars sit unused 94% of each day.

This is all about to change, and multiple emerging and converging trends are going to transform how we live and move around our cities. They will also create some new problems that will require some seriously creative solutions. Regardless, these advancements are already well underway and are beginning to transform urban living from Manhattan Beach, CA to Manhattan, NYC.

The first shift in transportation is the explosion of car sharing platforms, with Uber and Lyft currently commanding the bulk of the market. Now, instead of driving and parking, commuters now have the option of reliable and relatively affordable point-to-point transportation. These services offer many ways to travel, offering options from luxury vehicles to car-pooling with a group of strangers. This is a big deal, and while its impact on other transportation concerns like drunk driving is still being studied, it’s clear to see that fewer people driving alone and needing a place to leave their car all day reduces traffic and the demand for parking.

Next, electric vehicles may again be the majority of vehicles on the road for the first time in over a century. Tesla proved that there is a market for an electric car that has enough range, and is currently hard at work preparing to produce the nearly 400,000 new Model 3 sedans that have been pre-ordered. To support that demand (and demand for its home storage units), Tesla started advanced battery production earlier this week at their five-billion-dollar factory in Nevada. Production at this unprecedented scale should continue to lower prices.

In response to the success Tesla is having, Chevy just began delivering their affordably priced all-electric Bolt, and other manufacturers have been quick to follow suit and are ramping up production of their own electric models. Proterra, the electric bus manufacturer just announced that they have received $140 million in investment to help them meet the incredible demand for their all-electric buses that can travel 350 miles and recharge in ten minutes.

Lastly, self-driving vehicles are quickly improving as the needed technologies rapidly advance and are moving from science fiction to production reality faster than just about any other technology in history. Tesla and Google have lead the pack here, and have been a major factor in getting the world’s largest car brands to invest heavily in this area so they can continue to compete in the future. Yesterday, at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Audi and Nvidia announced that they will have a “Level 4” or fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2020. It’s 2017 right now. That timeline would have been unfathomable just a few years ago. New Teslas may even be fully autonomous before that!

Car sharing platforms are keenly aware of the potential of cars without drivers and are building their own systems. As self-driving car services begin to clear the regulatory and technical barriers, their integration into car sharing platforms will dramatically accelerate. The primary cost right now is the driver, and when the driver is software and sensors, it’s going to get far cheaper to ride, especially in electric autonomous vehicles with low “fuel” costs. To this end, Uber has recently started testing their self-driving technology with users, although there is still a driver in the car due to current regulations.

The Rise of EAV’s Will Hit Cities Like a Hurricane
It’s not some huge revelation to say that car sharing platforms, electric vehicles, and autonomous vehicles will have an impact. What is important to consider though is exactly what types of impacts they could have. People often miss the secondary and tertiary effects of new technologies, and they rarely think about convergence.

In this case, the convergence of car sharing platforms and Electric Autonomous Vehicles or EAV’s is going to be one of the most disruptive occurrences that have ever hit cities. This will be a “perfect storm” of technological disruption and will reshape cities and even city governments.*

What are some challenges and opportunities we should anticipate?
  • Individual ownership declines, starting in cities. Why own a car when you have access to affordable and reliable transportation? A family’s second and third vehicles will be first to go. Obviously, this will significantly impact manufacturers, dealers, and tax dollars. If people don’t own a car, they’re not paying sales tax, license and registration fees, plate renewals, and many other taxes and fees. EAV’s compound the problem because their owners won’t pay any gas tax – a huge revenue generator for counties. The loss of this revenue will be felt by everyone as funds to run cities and counties will need to be derived from other sources.
  • Parking lots and garages become redundant. Parking lots will likely be the first to be repurposed as it’s much easier to build on a lot than tear down a multi-story concrete ramp. Parking ramps will present a much larger challenge, and not just in the cost and difficulty of removing them, but in the millions of investment dollars lost on structures that have not yet recouped their initial construction costs. These losses will reverberate through our government and financial systems that will have already been weakened by the impacts of other trends and technologies, such workforce automation.
  • Professional drivers get pushed out of the driver’s seat: People who drive for a living number in the millions just here in the US. Cab drivers, truck drivers, local delivery drivers, and many others will find themselves being replaced by a technology that they can’t compete against in terms of cost, performance, or safety. Job losses at this scale and over what will likely be a fairly compressed time-period (less than five years) will be nearly impossible for cities to absorb and the retraining necessary to find new work for those impacted will not come easily.
  • Restaurant and retail business need to rethink everything. These industries, already under pressure from a multitude of other trends and technologies, are going to need to almost start from square one and figure how they take can take advantage of a customer base that can easily and effortlessly travel. Locations in the middle of a busy downtown may see an increase in sales as people outside the city may be more willing to travel to them without the worry of sitting in traffic or finding and paying for parking. People may also be more willing to travel to far-flung suburbs or rural areas for unique dining or shopping experiences. I suspect many won’t make the jump and will be forced out of business by this transformation in transportation.
  • Cleaner and healthier cities. As electric vehicles slowly become the predominant mode of transportation in cities, C02 and other pollutant emissions there will decrease. Solar technologies are advancing rapidly, and we can expect many of these vehicles to be powered by the sun. Large electric vehicles like Proterra buses will also dramatically reduce pollution levels. This can’t happen soon enough for major global cities such as Paris and Beijing which are currently taking drastic measures to fight pollution.
  • Residents will be much safer. Passengers and pedestrians can expect to be much safer in a city filled with EAVs. Advanced sensors and systems will be much better at anticipating and avoiding any type of accident, and the addition of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems will further enhance those capabilities. With these improvements, people may be more willing to commute via bike or walk more often (it will be tempting to just take an EAV everywhere though!).
  • Cities can reclaim valuable real estate. EAV’s will make more efficient use of road space and need far less of it per passenger mile. They will drive closer together without increasing the probability of an accident and will easily find the fastest routes anywhere. These benefits, coupled with the fact that they won’t need to park, will free up huge amounts of space. Additional traffic lanes could be turned into dedicated bus or bike lanes, and parking lots could be used by developers to create more living spaces.
  • Dozens of other disruptive possibilities… I’ve barely scratched the surface of the changes we could see in our cities over the next five to ten years due to advancements in transportation. What else might be possible if fleets of EAV’s begin to take the streets over the next few years?
  • What Actions can city leaders take today to begin preparing for this transformation in transportation?
  • First, acknowledge that we are going to experience incredible changes in how we travel and that this will profoundly impact cities. This is sometimes the hardest step for those preparing for a future that’s almost unimaginably different than the world we know. Now is not the time for 20-year plans, and city planners need to recognize that many of these changes will happen while they’re still in their positions, not long after they retire. The time to start paying attention is now.

City leaders and local business organizations need to begin anticipating which industries and specific job functions will be most affected and start creating a plan to help workers in these areas find new work. Consider the infrastructure needed in the near-term future. It’s probably not going to be additional road lanes, parking garages, or parking lots. Carefully review revenue sources and look at the areas that could be dramatically reduced by EAV’s and changes in transportation. Start finding ways to offset losses in transportation fees and taxes and develop new income streams. Work with retailers and restaurants to think about how some of these possibilities could impact them and what opportunities could be created that they could benefit from. Finally, talk with real estate developers and discuss ways that this new reality could allow them to create a more livable and enjoyable environment for people living or working in the areas that will be most affected.

Advancements in transportation technology and the convergence of car sharing platforms and EAV’s will be nothing short of transformational to cities – the important question is, what kind of transforming are we going to experience?

By: Simon J. Anderson, Strategic Foresight Speaker and Consultant on the future of cities.

*Futurist Thomas Frey does a fantastic job of going more in-depth on this than I have here and I highly recommend reading his new article: Driverless Tech – 8 scenarios that show it to be the most disruptive technology in all history