In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, writer Christopher Mims argues that driverless cars like those being developed by Google and Uber might lead to greater suburban sprawl. On the face of it, the argument makes a certain sort of sense: other major advances in transportation technology have enabled us to live farther and farther from where we work and play, so why wouldn’t self-driving cars change our lifestyles even further?
Mims offers a few points to back his predictions: the first is that ordering a ride from a self-driving car is likely to be significantly less expensive than car ownership, allowing people to invest in larger, nicer housing further away from the city. He also points out that a lengthy commute that might be intolerable in a regular car might be downright relaxing if commuters were able to use it as time to simply relax during the trip.
However, there are some obvious holes in this logic. While Mims takes care to point out a recent survey claiming that 66% of millennials prefer to live in the suburbs, the study has some glaring flaws. It only included that small portion of the millennial population that is in the market for a home or intends to purchase one in the next three years. Only about a third of millennials fall into that category — the rest either prefer to rent as a cost-savings measure (understandable, giving the rising tide of student loan debt), aren’t able to qualify for a mortgage, or simply aren’t interested in home ownership. The majority of millennials, at least, probably aren’t going anywhere.
It also doesn’t make sense to compare the advent of the driverless car to the invention of the automobile itself. While it’s true that cars made it easier to travel longer distances than had ever been possible before, dramatically reducing the length of trips, that’s not true for self-driving cars. No matter whether a vehicle is controlled by man or machine, an hour-long commute will still take an hour out of the commuter’s day, so it’s unlikely an impatient person who values living close to work will have a dramatic change of heart simply because the drive requires them to pay a bit less attention to the road.
Worth noting, as well, is the fact that many strongly disagree about the impact driverless cars may really have on the way we live. Carlo Ratti, an MIT researcher for the school’s Senseable City Lab, believes the opposite: that self-driving cars will allow people to more easily live in denser urban areas. But the truth of the matter is that we simply don’t know, and until self-driving vehicle technology has progressed to the point where it’s a viable everyday transit option, that will remain the case.
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