I love cities, but have concerns about how the latest crop of high-tech upgrades will impact city life at the street and sidewalk level. Thanks to advancements like delivery robots, autonomous taxis and drones, which will eventually hit the urban scene in a big way, the one certainty is that cities of the future will look, feel and operate much different than they do today.
With Lyfts on demand, tweeting food trucks and restaurants offering discounts when you’re within a given distance, we’re all guinea pigs as businesses figure out what to do when there are swarms of drones in the sky, jam-packed lines of driverless cars and scads of cargo robots in our already-crowded downtowns.
Paradise or dystopia
Nothing is certain and there are countless details to suss out as new technologies drop. Even so, it’s easy to think of the future as nothing but solutions to the problems that plague us today. Too hungover for brunch? No problem! Punch in an order on your phone, and everything from Advil to avocado toast will be on its way. Sick of traffic? No worries, autonomous cars promise less frequent traffic jams. It sounds nice, but that’s probably not how this space odyssey will play out.
Even if people don’t own their own cars as futurists predict, driverless taxis will need to be plentiful enough to handle rush hour. There will be thousands of them in big cities. If everyone from UPS to Amazon begins using sidewalks to ship cargo—or we all buy cute robots to schlep our detritus around for us—that’s a lot of new traffic in once-placid public spaces. And how noisy will cities become when there are hundreds of impatient drones hovering overhead?
To determine whether our future will be paradise or dystopia, I spoke with DoorDash COO Christopher Payne and David King, assistant professor of urban planning at Arizona State University. Both became very fired up when asked to predict the future.
Payne immediately underscored that we haven’t seen anything yet, stressing that we are at “day one” in terms of the changes as technology rushes to meet fast rising consumer expectations.
“The on-demand economy is just getting going in terms of people wanting to get what they want, where they want it, when they want it and it’s very powerful,” he said, (he just helped secure $535 million in funding from investors who are buying into the company narrative). Based in San Francisco, Payne already sees the future unfolding by comparing the brand’s smaller markets to the bleeding-edge ecosystem of Silicon Valley.
“In Tucson, I bet if you interviewed a couple of restaurant operators they would say this delivery thing is kinda cool, it’s 2-3% of my sales already and I’m really excited about it,” he said. “Then come with me to Silicon Valley or Stanford, go down University Avenue and you’ll see what the world looks like four years into the future—some of those restaurants are doing 30, 40 or 50% of their sales through delivery.”
Sidewalk delivery robots are already a mainstay in Payne’s hometown, and DoorDash has seen local restaurant operators completely flipping their in-store layout and flow to account for the massive number of delivery orders heading out the door. In an effort to cut down on congestion, DoorDash has started using robots to bring delivery meals from the kitchen out to waiting Dashers in back parking lots to take congestion off the street and sidewalk.
While Payne doesn’t ever envision a world where people won’t want the dining-in experience, he believes delivery is changing the game faster than expected. A self-proclaimed technologist, he’s particularly anxious to start sending drones across San Francisco Bay, which will expand the company’s reach since car trips over the water can take 45 minutes or more at peak times.
With years of research under his belt, Payne said DoorDash only sees delivery options of all kinds increasing in breadth and frequency as customers get accustomed to getting whatever they want on command.
“It has broad implications to society and to restaurants in particular,” he said. “I’m thrilled.” $535 million tends to have that effect.
Autonomous taxis are already shuttling riders in Tempe, Arizona, where ASU urban planner David King has recently been studying how goods will move in commercial areas of the future. Looking at everything from congestion to dwelling time, parking lot traffic to delivery frequency, he’s trying to get a sense of how city streets, industrial parks, coffee shops and retail stores function, all the way down to the common man or woman walking down the sidewalk.
“Right now I’m not going to take a taxi or Uber to Circle K to buy a bag of chips,” he said. “Automation is going to drive down the cost of these transactional deliveries tremendously, so we’re going to start delivering all kinds of things to our homes that typically we’re not.”
As a fun exercise, think of how many vehicles are in motion for you right now. If you’re a typical Amazonian, you probably have a gift on the way and a shipment of groceries or some home goods in addition to all the junk mail headed your way—all in addition to your own set of wheels. What would that total vehicle count be if there were no order minimums or shipping fees of any kind? Multiply that by 323 million Americans and picture the chaos.
Beyond picturing an insane amount of delivery vehicles, King reminded me that vehicle types are also going to change—some in the sky, some on the street, and possibly countless others joining us mortals on the sidewalk. His comment brought to mind the autonomous produce market, dubbed Robomart, that was displayed at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s equal parts brilliant invention and indulgent planet killer.
“Suddenly we’re introducing vehicles to places where cars currently aren’t,” he said. “If you think communities complain bitterly about traffic now, wait until traffic is a bunch of small robots all over the place—it really has the potential to be devastating for pleasant urban environments.”
As a former restaurant owner, he brought his head out of the clouds to some reality for business owners trying to make sense of simultaneous changes. No matter what, he said, the rise of shared rides and driverless cars will mean parking is going to be less important for businesses—so think twice before repaving or adding new spaces.
In his academic and in-person research, King said that business owners in urban areas tend to overestimate the number of drivers coming to their business, while underestimating those who are walking, biking, taking transit or using ride-hailing services. That advice dovetails with the long-standing goals of urban planning and placemaking: taking urban spaces away from cars and giving them back to people.
He found a particularly sharp, roundabout way of saying that the one constant in a changing world will be human chaos, specifically the difficulty in predicting what works, what doesn’t, and the infinite unforeseen factors that will change our cities.
“People are always going to be very problematic,” he said. “Even though people are ostensibly the fun part of everything.”