Sidewalk Labs believes personal vehicle ownership is about to become history, constructing suburbiums more accessible and better for walking and cycling. But what if it simply entails people jostle each child into a different vehicle to get to school?
A few months ago I interviewed Klaus Bondam, head of the Danish cycling union and formerly Copenhagens mayor for roads and infrastructure, and asked him how he saw his city changing in the course of the year. The answer was something of a surprise.
Look at something like car parking, Bondam told me. Its so old fashioned in my eyes. The private ownership of a car that will end in the next 10 to 15 years. I think its going to be a combination of shared vehicles, of city automobiles, of modes of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.
This sounded like a rapid timeframe, I told him. Bondam was adamant: Im totally convinced about that. Why on earth would you make a big investment that you just leave outside 95% of the time and dont utilize?
This was, of course, Copenhagen, which already has very high levels of cycling, and measures to curb private car employ. But other people also believe that such a transport revolution could be coming to other urban areas.
The key element of this is the advent of the driverless auto. These might seem something for the distant future, but the technology is already affecting peoples lives auto insurance premiums are predicted to plummet in the next few years as crash-avoidance and sensor-triggered braking systems become more widespread.
Leading the way on driverless technology are tech firms, notably Google. One effect of this is that research into driverless vehicles involves not just how they might work, but how they could be used, a product of the computer engineers traditional impatience with inefficient or wasteful systems.
All this inevitably draws engineers towards the idea of automobile sharing. As Bondam notes, each person, or family, having their own automobile is absurdly inefficient and leaves everyone, auto user or not, having to deal with external factors such as streets cluttered with parked vehicles, and cars crawling along go looking for parking.
Sharing systems already exist in many cities , not least bike networks of the type seen in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. App-based taxi services such as Uber are broadly similar, although they create their own problems , not least a large number of vehicles cruising round as they await fares, causing pollution and congestion.
One Google-spinoff company is trying to look further into the future for more radical answers. Anand Babu, chief operating officer at Sidewalk Labs, believes cities could be fundamentally reshaped by the mass arrival of shared, driverless vehicles, something he forecasts to happen sooner than many people think.
The intention of Sidewalk Labs is to reshape cities through the conjunction of clever planning and hi-tech solutions. It is working on LinkNYC, a joint venture between New York City and CityBridge, a consortium involving Sidewalk Labs, to turn defunct payphone booths into digital hubs, and Flow, a more ambitious plan aimed at helping urban areas monitor and manage traffic more effectively.
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