Friday, March 29, 2013

Sprawl returns ...  

And probably sooner than we think. The recession, especially in housing combined with gas prices, and gridlock to bring urban expansion into the country to pretty much a halt. In fact, it has been reversing.
Now, with crop prices soaring and housing in a deep slump, the economics of land investment have turned upside down. Farmers and investors are buying land that had been slated for development and using it for agriculture. And they are paying a small fraction of what housing developers paid for the same land before the recession.
The trend, if it continues, could represent a historic shift away from development in the far reaches of metropolitan areas. These properties had fueled much of the housing industry's bubble last decade.
In September, the Vanderweys, an Arizona dairy farming family, paid $8 million for a 760-acre alfalfa and cotton field that had fallen into foreclosure in Buckeye, Ariz., about 30 miles west of Phoenix. That same parcel, called Liberty Farm, had been sold to real-estate speculators in 2005 for $40.8 million. The Vanderweys want to plant hay.

California farmer Paul Singh bought this land from housing developers.
"These prices are becoming the new normal," said Nick Vanderwey, one of four brothers who purchased the farmland. "Everything in this area is coming back into farmers' hands."[More]
(Note: this article was from 2011)
 But wait!  This song isn't over, and Google may be writing the next verse with its autonomous car. There are others working on this, but Google provides a convenient benchmark. And it has a powerful argument about feasibility.

Watch and marvel.

The implications for such vehicles are simply staggering, and one may be a chance for those exurban farmer super-fortunates to sell their land again to developers as cities begin to expand.
Many anticipated consequences of driverless cars have already received attention on this blog and elsewhere, such as their impact on the mobility of the elderly, on taxis and car sharing services and on the future of the car industry. A crucial aspect which has escaped attention is the impact of driverless cars on urban form, which I anticipate will follow two broad predictions:
  • Cities will greatly expand, again: Faster and more efficient transportation will convert locations that are currently too remote for most users into feasible alternatives, abundant with space. Like suburban rail in the early twentieth century and the mass consumer automobile that followed, driverless cars will generate a gradual, but dramatic expansion of cities.
  • Buildings and parking will be uncoupled, freeing up valuable land: After dropping off passengers, driverless cars will independently seek parking (or their next car-share customers) and they will show up for the return ride at the tap of an app. As soon as driverless cars are common enough, the demand for adjacent parking will dwindle and parking lots in areas where land is sufficiently valuable will be ripe for conversion to other land use. As parking in high-value areas is thinned out or altogether purged, the micro-structure of cities will change – you guessed it – dramatically!

Why will cities expand?

Driverless cars will make it less “costly” for people to travel a given geographic distance, partly because they will be free to engage in other activities while travelling, but primarily because of reductions in travel time. Unlike human drivers, autonomous vehicles will follow optimal routes given real-time traffic conditions without fail. More crucially, as soon as suitable roads such as freeways (or lanes thereof) are declared off limits to manual driving, driverless cars will travel – safely – at much higher speeds than we do today. Gains in efficiency will follow from coordinated traffic management protocols, too. Once vehicles communicate with each other traffic through intersections and merges will flow much more smoothly than permitted by today’s traffic signals, stop signs and merging lanes, leading to substantial gains in travel time (a partial, human-mediated step in this direction is explored in this article).
If people currently forego affordable, spacious dream homes because the associated commute is too long, a technology that condenses the time needed for commuting along the same route – and allows doing so in the back seat – will make those homes more agreeable. Similarly, businesses whose location depends chiefly on access to appropriate labor or clientele will find that potential locations which are currently too remote will become feasible. It will still be crucial for them to sit “close” enough to their talent pools or their customer base, but because what matters for “closeness” is travel time rather than geographic distance, these firms will be able to reap the benefits of more remote locations without giving up “closeness.”

How far will cities expand?

The extent to which cities expand will be determined by the extent to which travel times are reduced. The more efficient traffic flow becomes the broader the geographic range in which living and working becomes feasible.
Will we ever hit a point at which people are no longer interested in the extra space offered by more distant locations? This is unlikely. Today swimming pools and three car garages are common in suburban homes, but who would have imagined that possible before the advent of the mass consumer automobile? Perhaps the current equivalent is the wish voiced by some home buyers – typically just beyond the urban fringe – that neighbors’ homes be out of sight. That seems like a lot to ask in today’s suburbs, but it could well become the norm looking forward.

When will this happen?

Most estimates suggest that the arrival of the fully self-driving car on the consumer market will occur within a decade. Provided that it will be possible to install these systems in existing manually driven cars – much as hands-free cellphone devices can be installed today – then there will be no need to wait for the entire stock of cars to gradually be replaced, and a much faster process of adoption will ensue. The speed of the process will be determined by people’s willingness to give up the driver’s seat, and by the adaption of the legal environment, first to permit driverless cars and then to secure them an exclusive right of way (a separate lane on the freeway). Google and the automakers will go to great lengths to ensure that legal barriers are removed and that the driverless car is adopted quickly. The devotion of a separate right of way may be a more challenging feat, but it will be difficult to reject in light of the gains it will offer.
Following these developments, the gradual process of city expansion will take place over many decades, much as the ramifications of the mass consumer automobile continue to play out almost a century after its arrival. [More worth reading despite my generous excerpting]
I fear the autonomous car will arrive about 20 minutes after I end my career at USFR and don't have to make my 3 hr. 7 min. commute to South Bend. That's OK. But I wonder what farmers could get up to in our ever-expanding off-season if distance were less of a hassle.

If any group in the US should grasp the possible impact the autonomous car could have, it is we farmers. Let's face it - I'll probably lose control of my grain cart before long.

Forget the Segway - I'm betting on this as the Next Big Thing.


Chuck said...

I use lots of Google's stuff. Their search of course, gmail, Google docs, Chrome, and so on.

And it almost works most of the time.

Like now, typing this comment in Google's Blogger.

If I type an empty line to separate paragraphs the blinking cursor disappears. Where's the next thing I type going to go? I have no idea.

Oh and there's lots of reasons. Blame the HTML spec, blame the operating system. Maybe clear my cache and cookies and try again.

So the people who can't display a cursor consistently in a text field are going to bring us an autonomous vehicle?

I think I'll keep my hands on the wheel.

Gary said...

Will there be a need for a drivers license with this car or can we send any age child to the store or school with this car?

Unknown said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE it!! Great choice! And I like your very logical reasons why.
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