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Leslie Hook has written a compelling article in The Financial Times  describing how driverless technology will rewrite our streets, and make them-no irony  intended-more “human”.

There are huge changes that are coming,” says Dan Doctoroff, former deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding in New York. “We are in the middle of a historic moment.” Today Doctoroff leads Sidewalk Labs, a one-year-old offshoot of Google that works to bring new technologies to cities.

Doctoroff  believes that driverless technology will reduce congestion and improve road safety. And this is where it gets a bit weird, and a bit like a 1950’s copy of Mechanics Illustrated magazine. Since the current road infrastructure is decaying and since hyperloops could be developed to move people more efficiently, Shervin Pishevar of Uber and Hyperloop One says  “Cities are effectively taken hostage by the automobile designs of the 20th century.” 

His solution is to design and build new cities, in conjunction with hyperloop networks, which will feature lush, green urban centres and underground tunnels for transportation. He refers to this as “re-terraforming the earth. This existing infrastructure is not what we are going to be living in the future,” he says. “Like pyramids that are decaying, those parts of cities are going to be just remnants of what is in the past.” While Pishevar’s vision is extreme, even by Silicon Valley standards, a growing number of tech companies are already making more immediate, if prosaic, changes to our cities. One of the most visible is the coming shift to driverless cars — and if the technologists are right, this could happen sooner than we think.”

Private car ownership could peak as soon as 2020, according to a recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. “As car ownership drops, you can start to think about a total redesign of cities around people, which is as it should be, and not around cars, which is how it is right now,” says Jon Walker, author of the study.

The co-founder of Lyft predicts that within five years most of Lyft’s rides will be by driverless vehicles. Uber is back talking about flying cars that move like helicopters. But no matter what technology that is being imagined, all agree that the huge winner will be the City, which will reclaim vast tracts of land previously dedicated to parking.

It will also be important that transit is still supported, as the shift from buses to smaller Uber vehicles could create congestion, as Jarrett Walker has been saying.The fantasy of everything being demand-responsive disrupts something that is very important to urban development — namely the knowledge that transit is permanent enough to be a basis of investment,” he says, pointing to the importance of fixed transit lines like subways.”

With cities like New York and San Francisco already seeing a huge move away from private car ownership, the trend to the use of car sharing has commenced. It remains to be seen if driverless technology rewrites city space and structure as the technology companies suggest it will.

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