An urban designer explains why self-driving cars will only make life worse

Peter Calthorpe isn’t interested in the wonder of self-driving cars picking kids up from school or fetching couch potatoes their fast food order.

As the urban designer relayed from this year’s TED conference, what autonomous vehicles offer in terms of convenience is far outweighed by their isolating effect on people’s daily lives.

“Putting people in their private bubbles, whether they have a steering wheel or not, is the wrong direction,” Calthorpe told TED chief executive Chris Anderson after his talk.

Transportation enthusiasts often paint the cities of tomorrow as bustling with four-wheeled vehicles but devoid of people to pilot them. Private companies like Uber and Ford see cities as hubs for AI-powered transit. Without humans to run red lights or forget a turn signal, accidents and traffic will be relics of a bygone era.

Calthorpe doesn’t dispute those breakthroughs, but he does ask people to reconsider their priorities as that future draws closer. His talk implicated sprawl — both low-density suburban sprawl found in the US and high-density urban sprawl found in China — as the “villain” of our urbanizing planet.

Self-driving cars “will revitalize sprawl in a way that I’m deeply frightened,” Calthorpe said.

People will treat their cars as butlers or chauffeurs, he fears, giving people even less of an incentive to put down their phones and laptops and talk to their neighbours face-to-face.

Instead, he’d like to see cities become more walkable, more bike-friendly.

During his talk, he discussed how a decreasing percentage of city-dwellers own a car, but nearly 100% of the streets are still dedicated to driving. He says the imbalance ought to tilt more toward pedestrian-friendly modes of transit.

They might be less flashy, but they are the kind Calthorpe says help societies truly thrive.

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