Acclaimed architecture expert Cedric Price famously stated, “Technology is the answer but what was the question?” It never ceases to amaze me how often this provocation is relevant to the conversation at hand.
Various media outlets have been reporting breathlessly on the wondrous invention of driverless cars. According to an article in the Australian Financial Review, the new technology “will improve our cities, our stress levels and our waistlines.”
Perhaps they will also clean the house, feed the kids and walk the dog too. We have a long history of getting overly excited about technologies. From the 1940s through to the 1960s, there was great excitement about the arrival of household conveniences that would liberate us from the daily grind so we could all have more leisure time.
However, that’s not exactly how things worked out. In fact, we actually ended up using time new time to work more, and for many, to travel more, because they found themselves living on the fringes of vast sprawling cities. This is a lesson we don’t seem to have heeded too well. Take for example the following segment from the aforementioned AFR article:
“The amount of time people spend in traffic jams will decrease significantly, and that could reduce the amount of pent-up stress and anger many commuters feel, says Jay Lebow, a psychology professor at Northwestern University's Family Institute. Additionally, "you can use the time better," he says. "There is a helpful effect. It might promote more leisure time."
So, how much are we investing in the desired outcomes of driverless cars, and how much are we considering the unintended outcomes? While some such outcomes may be harder to envision, others are more obvious. Despite the obviousness of such issues, it appears that they are actually being touted as benefits.
MIT’s Carlo Riatti, an renowned researcher in driverless cars, has recently been talking about how the driverless cars will transform our cities. According to Riatti, we will no longer require need traffic lights because the cars will talk to each other and work out how best to move through intersections in perfect free-flowing conditions. It's hard to argue with such wonderful notions of efficiency, or at least until you start to look at the impact of such changes on street life.
How does Riatti envision dealing with the issue of people crossing the street? The answer is ‘grade separation,’ of course! Yes, that is correct. The future is, well, the past - a past that thankfully was never fully realised.
It was the modernist vision, like that of the architect Le Corbusier, who said “We must kill the street. We shall truly enter into modern town planning only after we have accepted this preliminary determination.”
Such a vision - heavily influenced by Le Corbusier - was first presented by General Motors in their ‘Futurama’ exhibition at the 1939 World Trade Fair in New York. GM predicted this vision would come to pass by the 1960s, but it didn’t.
That didn’t stop it from being proposed again, in the 1960s, this time appearing in the UK, in the seminal work of urban planner Sir Colin Buchanan, called ‘Traffic in Towns.’
That time, it had more of an impact, much of which destroyed the life of our streets, our towns, and our cities. It privileged motor traffic in every respect, marginalising people and everything that made our streets vibrant and liveable.
We have been trying to undo this mess now for decades, but, alas, here we are again.
Technology is the answer, they cry. Never heard that one before.