Driverless Cars and the Return of the Auto-Centric Mindset

I’ve warned before that cities could easily end up making the same mistake with driverless cars that they made with ordinary cars. Namely, taking a good technology and elevating it above its place to become the central organizing principle of cities.

Here’s how it works: A hot new technology comes along. Cities are desperate to be the leader in it. City leaders worry about “falling behind” in driverless cars. City leaders worry that their city will be perceived as hostile to innovation and tech, and that if they blow it on driverless cars, the tech economy will pass them by. (You have seen this argument made before already with Uber and Lyft). The result: cities compete with each other to prostrate themselves before the driverless car.

Here’s an example from an article in City Lab about a proposal for New York City that paints a picture of how this might work out:

A new proposal from the architecture and engineering firm Edg envisions how New York City’s infrastructure might change to accommodate that vision. It also sheds light on the temptations that might sway planners away from human-centered urban design and back toward more modernist, auto-centric practices in the age of autonomous vehicles.

Loop NYC, as the proposal is known, would create one lane in each direction dedicated to self-driving cars on the highways that outline Manhattan: the West Side Highway and F.D.R. Drive. It would also turn several major cross streets into expressways for autonomous vehicles, adding pedestrian overpasses to keep people off the streets. These self-driving superblocks would form “loops” around Manhattan, efficiently circulating autonomous vehicles throughout the city, eventually including private, shared, and public vehicles, according to John J. Meyer, a designer at Edg. These changes could result in dramatically decreased travel times, the proposal claims.

It’s easy to see how momentum builds for this. Car companies are now big sponsors of urbanism events. At the conferences I attended last year, virtually every speaker 100% championed a mandated transition to driverless cars ASAP. To accomplish it, the infrastructure of our cities could be redirected to serve the needs of driverless cars instead of people.

This time there’s no excuse. We saw what happened with cars originally. If it repeats itself again, shame on us. We need to find a way to use the driverless car to serve our needs, instead of us changing to service its need.


from Aaron M. Renn

Industrial Past, Industrial Future

“Chicago sunrise 1” by Daniel Schwen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about how Chicago’s downtown office boom is being fueled by old line industries like food and consumer goods.

Like many other major U.S. cities, Chicago is enjoying a boom as big employers opt for downtowns over suburban office parks that are being shunned by young workers. More than $20 billion worth of residential, office, cultural and retail projects are in development or on the drawing board, according to the city Planning and Development Department.

But Chicago’s growth engine is different from those benefiting booming cities on this country’s East and West Coasts. Unlike cities such as San Francisco and Boston, where the technology sector is fueling economic development, Chicago lately has been relying heavily on growth of food and consumer-products companies.

While most of these companies are decades old, they also are recognizing the need to attract a young and urban workforce as they add new products, technology and services in response to shifting consumer preferences. McDonald’s executive workforce, for example, has launched a mobile app, added self-order kiosks and added healthier items to its menu.

The fact that Chicago has attracted a lot of businesses related its agro-industrial past is something that I’ve commented on before.

Saskia Sassen has written before, using Chicago as her example, that the industrial past of a city shapes the kind of global city future that it has. In her essay on Cities in a Global Age, she wrote:

There is an interesting discovery that comes out of recognising the value of the specialised differences of cities in today’s global economy. It is that the deep economic history of a place matters for the type of knowledge economy a city or a city–region winds up developing. This goes against the common view that globalisation homogenises economies. How much this deep economic history matters varies, partly depending on the particulars of a city’s or a region’s economy. But it matters more than is commonly assumed, and it matters in ways that are not generally recognised. Globalisation homogenises standards and management models. But it needs diverse specialised economic capabilities.

Establishing how a city–region becomes a knowledge economy requires highly detailed research. I will use a case I researched, Chicago, to illustrate some of the issues.

Chicago is usually seen as a latecomer to the knowledge economy— almost fifteen years later than New York and London. Typically the answer is that Chicago had to overcome its heavy agro–industrial past: its economic history is usually seen as a disadvantage compared to old trading and financial centres such as New York and London. But I found that its past has not been a disadvantage. It is one key source of its competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy. This is most visible in the fact of its preeminence as a futures market built on pork bellies. The complexity, scale and international character of Chicago’s historical agro–industrial economy required highly specialised financial, accounting, legal expertise. But these were/are quite different from the expertise required to handle the sectors New York specialised in—service exports, finance, and trade.

It was Chicago’s past as a massive agro–industrial complex that gave it some of its core and distinctive knowledge economy components and has made it the leading global futures financial centre and global provider of specialised services (accounting, legal, insurance, etc) for handling heavy industry, heavy transport, and agribusiness. Chicago, São Paulo, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Seoul are among the leading producers of these types of specialised corporate services, not in spite of their economic past as major heavy industry centres, but because of it.

Chicago’s agro-industrial past is a negative in some sense. It is struggling more than some other cities with the overhang of his Rust Belt heritage, both in its internal functioning and from the fact that it is the business services center for a declining region.

But this past is also the city’s best competitive weapon in carving out its own niche without directly competing with the coasts.

ADM, Con Agra, Mead Johnson Nutrionals, Oscar Mayer, Hickory Farms, Caterpiller, Miller-Coors. These are all brand name companies that relocated from out of town to set up shop in Chicago. (That’s important because firms like McDonald’s are simply relocations within a region).  They are all related to its agro-industrial past.

Other cities may not be able to tap into this effect to the same degree. But then again, they were never as big as Chicago in the agro-industrial age either. Cities should look at what they have expertise in doing and in their historic industries to find areas where they can potentially grow in the future. You can’t hang your hat entirely on the past, but to some extent that is the raw material out of which your future is constructed.

from Aaron M. Renn

Are Cities Too Conservative?

Photo by Dmitry Avdeev, CC BY-SA 3.0

Political conservatism is all but extinct in cities, but the conservative impulse is alive and well. That is, a desire to prevent change in the name of preserving something that people find of value is still a powerful motivating force.

Historic preservation is an example of the conservative impulse.

NIMBYism is an example of the conservative impulse.

Anti-gentrification advocacy is an example of the conservative impulse.

In fact, it strikes me that cities are more conservative now than they were in the past. Previous generations were much more willing to engage in massive, radical projects of change than today’s residents and leaders. Not all of those previous projects were good to be sure, but many of them are what created the very cities as they exist today.

Think about, for example, New York City alone:

  • The street grid of a largely uninhabited Manhattan was laid out in 1811
  • The Erie Canal, a state project but one that tremendously benefitted the city, was finished in 1825
  • The Croton Aqueduct was opened in 1842, and subsequently New York build a massive system of upstate reservoirs and tunnels to bring a huge supply of the world’s best water into the city.
  • The city of New York as we know it today was created in 1898 by not just a single city-county merger, but by the merger of five counties (now the boroughs of New York).
  • The first New York City subway line opened in 1904. This was the first of a vast network of subway lines, still among the world’s largest and most patronized.
  • Then of course there are the vast Robert Moses construction projects

All of these were game changers for the city. When’s the last time New York conceived of anything comparable? True, new, rapidly growing cities need lots of new infrastructure and plans. Mature cities need less new infrastructure.

Yet today NYC does face serious problems related to housing supply, its transportation network, etc. But unlike in previous generations, no real solutions are forthcoming. Pretty much every proposal to address them is a small ball idea, apart from those originating with largely uninfluential bloggers, etc.. The era of daring to dream big and creating something audacious is over.

It may very well be that incrementalist solutions are in fact better. But that doesn’t change the underlying reality that New York and other American cities today are seemingly unable to pull off the types of transformative plans and initiatives that they did in the past.

from Aaron M. Renn

Why the Basic Income Won’t Work

Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy
By Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght (Harvard University Press, 400 pp., $29.95)

I was asked to write a review of a book on the basic income – the idea that everyone in society gets a significant free, no-strings-attached income from the government every year – for City Journal. The basic income, or universal basic income, is getting huge mindshare in places like Silicon Valley as they try to think about what to do after they put everybody else out of a job.

The only problem is that by the criteria of the huge boosters the basic income who wrote this book, it’s a non-starter in America. And it has huge practical and moral questions.

This review has already provoked significant, extreme, and highly polarized reactions. That’s something I attribute to their views of the basic income generally.

Here’s an excerpt:

The overarching goal of the basic-income proposal is to ease economic distress stemming from the structural disappearance of work and declining real incomes for lower-skilled workers. Technology has eliminated countless jobs, and there’s no reason to believe that this process won’t continue. Researchers from MIT and Oxford have estimated that technology already in development, such as driverless cars, could eliminate nearly half of all current jobs in the United States. One does not have to accept this particular analysis to recognize the anxieties that exist—one reason why Silicon Valley supports the idea.

Some humility from the authors would have been welcome about the risks of the radical restructuring that basic income would entail; Van Parijs and Vanderborght see only upside. To illustrate the downside potential, consider the poor results from annual per-capita payments of casino revenues to American Indian tribes (not discussed in the book). Some tribes enjoy a very high “basic income”—sometimes as high as $100,000 per year— in the form of these payments. But as the Economist reports, “as payment grows more Native Americans have stopped working and fallen into a drug and alcohol abuse lifestyle that has carried them back into poverty.” The magazine contrasts this fate with that of more successful tribes like Washington State’s Jamestown S’Klallam, which eliminated poverty by investing in tribal-owned small businesses instead of handing out cash grants.

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

The Failing Last Layer of Social Capital in Troubled Working Class America

If you didn’t read it, I wrote a major feature in City Journal on the struggles of working class Scott County, Indiana. It’s a deep dive into one of America’s challenged working class communities and its efforts to fight back against its problems.

I just recorded a podcast on the subject, and explored a bit more of the similar problems that await many other similar communities. I also dive in a bit to what I see as a big looming problem, namely the passing away of the baby boom generation that represents the last predominantly socially and economically intact generation in some family lines. If the podcast doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Subscribe to podcast via iTunes | Soundcloud.


from Aaron M. Renn

A Discussion on Conservatives and Cities

I was pleased to have been able to be part of an event in Washington sponsored by the American Conservative magazine and the R Street think tank about conservatives and cities. The event was on C-SPAN, and while it isn’t embeddable here that I can see, you can click over to watch online.

The first panel basically made the case for a new urbanist approach to city development and an embrace of traditional urbanism. It featured Jason Segedy who is planning director of the city of Akron, Gracy Olmstead of the Federalist and R Street’s Jonathan Coppage, formerly editor of the American Conservative’s new urbanism project.

My panel starts about 1:02:00 and has more fireworks. Ross Douthat of the New York Times led off with a discussion of his column on breaking up the liberal city, and Benjamin Schwarz of TAC and I contributed our perspectives on the future of the city.

Again, click over to watch.

from Aaron M. Renn

With the Rise of Soda Taxes, Will “Soda” Conquer the Country?

The generic term for a soft drink is strongly regional, as the map above from Pop vs. Soda illustrates. There are actually three common terms: soda in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, parts of Florida, and California, Arizona, Hawaii and St. Louis; pop in the rest of the northern US; and coke in the South.

The rise of taxes on sugary drinks, labeled the “soda tax” because of its origination in the soda zone and the presence of national media there, is sowing some disruption in this configuration.

For example, Cook County, Illinois recently implemented a soda tax. Chicago is in the pop zone, but we see that the Chicago media is torn about what to call the tax, with variations including “soda tax”, “soda pop tax”, and “pop tax”.

These are actually the search results for “pop tax” and “Chicago.” I didn’t even include the word soda in the search. Right now my impression from reading the news there is that the media is predominantly calling it a soda tax. I don’t notice that news outlets have created a style guide type standard for this as publications like Crain’s and the Chicago Tribune have used different terms in different headlines.

The rise of soda taxes and other trends make me wonder if the term “soda” will ultimately become nationally dominant, at least among upper middle class society, which is seceding from regional cultures.

The soda tax is only one such trend. Sales of sugary drinks have been in decline for some time anyway, down for over a decade straight to a 40 year low.  Not just sweetened soft drinks, but diet soda has also seen a decline in sales.

Conversely, there has been a big increase in the consumption of sparkling water aka seltzer water, which is often called – wait for it – soda. I have never heard anyone refer to club soda or any type of carbonated water product as pop or coke. This is already known as just soda.

The rise of sparkling water – witness the boom in products like Sodastream – also suggest that the term soda might soon be on the rise nationally, even if, ironically, one of the leading brands of soda water is Wisconsin based La Croix.

Language is dynamic and there’s already at least one precedent for a takeover by soda. A reader points out that until recently, people in Boston used the term “tonic”, which has now been almost entirely replaced by soda, except among the elderly.

Am I saying that soda is destined to conquer America? No, but it’s something that’s worth keeping an eye on.

from Aaron M. Renn