I have noticed a trend in tech media in the last few years: people assert that new technology is about to make public transportation and the walkable urbanism that underlies it obsolete, and therefore it’s a waste of time to invest in the latter. The top examples of this are ride-hailing apps and autonomous cars, but electric cars are also a common excuse not to build urban rail. In addition, there are knock-on effects, causing transit agencies to neglect core functions like good service in favor of tech gimmicks, like Andrew Cuomo’s genius challenge.
In contrast, I’d like to present two much-anticipated technological changes that have the opposite effect: they should make the case for public transit easier. In no case is this directly about public transportation. Rather, it’s about making it easier to design cities for the exclusive use of pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit riders. One of these changes is still in the proof-of-concept stage; the other is already happening, and it’s on cities to capitalize on it.
There is ongoing experimentation about using aerial drones to deliver goods. The examples Wikipedia has are high-value, low-weight, such as passports and drugs. The current state of technology is such that delivering such goods by drone is feasible, though not yet at commercial scale, but there is research into bigger drones.
The impact of drone delivery is on how cities are built for freight movement. All freight transportation in cities today is done by truck, except for the occasional low-end bike delivery. Rail freight is completely infeasible: it operates at long ranges – in fact, two papers, one by Vassallo-Fagan and one by Furtado, find that 45% of the difference in rail freight modal share between the US and Europe is an artifact of longer distance for inland transportation in the US. Moreover, whatever rail freight exists is of low value – in the US, rail had 4% of the total value of goods shipped and 47% of ton-km in 2002. The stuff drones can plausibly carry goes by truck at any distance today.
So the potential is there for drones to take some of the most critical goods away from trucks, reducing city truck traffic, and with it, the demand for car-friendly street design. The socioeconomic class most opposed to giving public transit higher priority (at least in New York), the shopkeepers, cites deliveries as the primary reason to maintain curbside access.
Of note, drone delivery is also useful for rural areas with bad roads – it makes goods more easily available there. The likely effect of widespread drone delivery on urbanity has two components: reducing the consumption amenities of cities, since a more efficient transportation network makes it easier to ship goods to remote areas; and increasing the production amenities of cities, since it’s easier to design cities for maximum transportation efficiency of people, not to mention the office jobs created by the need to maintain drone software (the latter point also made by Masahita Fujita re new economic geography).
Automation of manufacturing
The increase in automation of manufacturing means that manufacturing employment is trending down. This is not an artifact of offshoring: Dani Rodrik’s paper about premature deindustrialization finds that the share of manufacturing in total employment is trending down in a large variety of poor and middle-income countries, and even in South Korea the manufacturing share peaked in 1989. Rather, there is a shift in the nature of low- and medium-skill work away from industry and toward services.
This is good for any attempt to get people to commute by public transit. Factories have not been conducive to public transportation for a hundred years. Electrification has encouraged single-story atria with plenty of space, replacing cramped multistory buildings like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Moreover, the rise of trucking has meant that the best site for a factory is one with very good highway access. The industrial site of the last few generations is not walkable, and any worker who earns enough to drive will. Serving such a site by transit is in theory possible, but employment is so spread out that the bus or train would underperform.
But today, manufacturing is increasingly irrelevant to commuting. Working-class employment concentrates in areas that are part of the middle class’s regular travel routine: hotels, casinos, and airports are destinations for middle-class travelers, shopping centers are destinations for middle-class consumers, hospitals and universities are large employers across all social classes from professors down to unskilled workers. With the exception of airports, these destinations are already fairly walkable or at least can be built this way, and in some cases, like that of the French Riviera, this could lead to public transit serving the working class better than the middle class.
In most of the top transit cities in the developed world, this process has already run its course. There is practically no industry left in New York, London, and Paris. But it does matter to some cities, such as Singapore, with its vast port with no passenger rail service. Los Angeles is not a transit city and it’s not because it has relatively high industrial employment for an American city, but the high manufacturing concentration does not help. Understanding that these jobs are slowly disappearing, not from one country but from the world, will help cities plan accordingly, especially in lower- and middle-income countries.