How can a city plan for the future when we don't know when Robocars will come


I've written a lot about the big effects robocars and other tech will have on cities, when they get here. But since you can't be sure of the date they will arrive, how does a city planner deal with making plans they know will be wrong? Here is some advice from the computer industry on how to do that.

Read Memo to city planners contemplating robocars


If I had enough money I'd be buying up all the cheap land I could find. The opportunity to build entirely new neighborhoods assuming nearly 100% of vehicles are autonomous is tremendous.

Hopefully "city planners" will get out of the way of the innovators who actually build the cities of tomorrow. I'm sure that will happen in some places, and those places are the ones where you should buy land today.

Actually, I think the bigger real estate opportunity will come from land that is useless today, but is hugely valuable with e-VTOL. e-VTOL are definitely coming for the rich outside of town, a bit longer maybe to show in the cities.

It's fun to think about the land and regions that might be revolutionized by e-VTOL. I find the japanese countryside to be an interesting case.

I wonder how much more valuable currently useless land would become though. It would of course increase in value, but since the total supply of usable land would increase so much it seems to me that the reduction in value of currently valuable land would be much larger than the increase in value of new land, with the result that real estate becomes a much smaller part of the economy. That might then have some interesting second order effects on the world economy...

Sounds like a small niche to me, but I don't know much about it.

What would be an example of land that is useless today, but is hugely valuable (for residential purposes?) with e-VTOL?

How much does that land cost today? Got any links? It's not quite as interesting as the cheap acreage you can get today in vast areas of the USA, but maybe a small plot of mountainside land (or whatever it is) would make a good investment. How do you build there? Gotta wait for cheap helicopters to do that too?

As far as land that will be more valuable with self-driving vehicles, just about anything outside of the city, especially far enough outside the city where land is still cheap.

Increasing my commute from 10 minutes to an hour wouldn't be so horrible if I could work in the car without any of the stress of driving, and you can get great deals on houses if you're willing to go that far away from the places where most of the well-paying jobs are located.

The reverse works too. More businesses can get away with setting up shop outside the city if commuting to them is less of a drag. And local businesses will spring up to serve the residents.

It has been happening for decades and decades now, but I firmly believe that self-driving vehicles will greatly accelerate the process.

Hilltop and hillside property. Today it's not practical, as you have to build a nice road (rather than a dirt track) and you need electricity, internet, water and sewer. Even if you do put in the road it can be a 20 minute drive down the hill. The latter ones remain the same problem, but today you can put in electricity and comms anywhere, and be down the hill in 3 minutes.

Okay, but what's the draw? Why build on property that requires such an expensive mode of transportation (it'll always be expensive) when there's so much cheap land all over the country?

Sure, some top 1%ers are gonna love flying around in their robot flying lawnmowers, but robocars are going to be a huge benefit to them plus the other 99%. It's a much bigger market.

Well, you can believe it will always be expensive. I and hundreds of companies don't.

However, even if it is expensive, but if you can have a lovely hillside/hilltop estate and still be downtown in 15 minutes, and in a nice play to walk and shop in 5, that's going to be the best of both worlds for a lot of home buyers. The privacy, views, acres and nature of a private estate on a hill, with the convenience of living a short ride from town, work and school? There's a lot of people want that. And they will want it on land that today is cheap because it's not practical to do that on it.

Thank you for letting me believe something different from you.

Even the most optimistic estimates I've found estimate the cost per mile will be many times that of ground transportation, and that's for specific high traffic routes, not for point to point from your house to your destination.

I have little doubt this will be revolutionary. Many people will use it occasionally. Some will use it much more frequently. I don't think a large percentage of the population will use it to commute to and from their otherwise not conveniently accessible "private estate on a hill." For those who can afford that, I'm sure it'll be great. It'll be great in large part because it's not something that everyone can afford (hence the "privacy, views, acres and nature").

eVTOL might also be used by the masses. But not for commuting to large, private, quiet hillside estates.

You have my permission to disagree with that. ;)

Around here, we have a lot of hills. There are a lot of very nice estates up in the hills, and as fancy properties, they built roads to them. These estates have nice houses at high prices, and great views and privacy. However, typically it can be 20 minutes to drive down to the valley floor and the highways for a commute or shopping trip or other such trips. An hour to San Francisco. But an eVTOL could get you to San Francisco in probably 15 minutes from these houses. You don't think people will want one? They have enough land to not have to worry about noise complaints from the neighbours as much. They will be able to land on the waterfront in San Francisco, the piers can take the noise and there is no need to fly over houses there. You do have to fly over houses to get there the direct way but you do that at high altitude in very quiet fixed wing electric flight.

You don't think they will want it? You don't think it will make these homes more valuable? Or other places that nobody built a road to? (I do think new hillside development will need some type of road probaby, but it will be just gravel or dirt and rarely used by the residents.)

As you said, they are nice houses at high prices already, so of course people will want them. People already do want them.

I don't think it's anywhere near as revolutionary as self-driving cars. An hour to San Francisco in a self-driving car will be a tiny fraction of the cost, and will be quite bearable compared to today. In some ways better because it'll be door to door with no transfers, and it'll be roomier. Probably safer too, although some eVTOL designs are safer than others.

The time difference might not even be as much as you think. Once we have dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles they'll be able to get places quite quickly.

In any case, most of the areas that'll benefit from self-driving cars will also benefit from self-flying aircraft. So buying up land which is cheap because it's a long drive from the city will get you the benefit of both innovations. (I just think a lot more people will use land-based transportation a lot more frequently.)

Well, Sebastian Thrun and others disagree about it being a fraction of the cost. Particularly on a trip like that, he says his latest vehicle, the Heaviside, uses less energy for the trip than a car (particularly on a trip like this where it travels much less distance by going in a straight line.) The vehicle won't be quite as cheap but pretty affordable. No roads needed so no infrastructure costs other than the vertiport you land at in the city. Where you step into a robotaxi to make it door to door.

It's pretty easy to find people who will disagree with anything. I'll believe it when I see it, which I won't.

3.225 trillion miles were driven in the USA in 2018. Sure, maybe you can make a small number of these things at a cost approaching cars, if you ignore all r&d costs. But if your price approached that of cars demand would be not just for a little bit, but for trillions and trillions of miles.

Lots of technologists don't know much about economics.

FKA, you should read "Realityland: True Life Adventures at Walt Disney World." Buying up cheap land and building a city of his own vision was exactly what Walt Disney planned to do. Unfortunately he passed away before the city part could be realized, but the book is still very instructive about large-scale private development.

As for city planners "getting out of the way" you should spend some time talking to your own city planners. I did, and I have a new respect for all the myriad constraints they need to operate within.

Thanks for the reference. I very much had Disney in the back of my mind while talking about that. Florida is still a good place to do that sort of thing. Nowhere near the steal it was when Disney was secretly buying up land, but you can get some good deals (some of them are not too far from Disney World, in fact).

I've been to seminars held by "city planners," and some of what they do is legit in that someone has to think of these things. The whole process of getting even a minor variance is way too expensive and political, though. Not to even mention how expensive and political it is to try to deviate from the "master plan" (a term which even sounds Orwellian). I wish it were judges that decided disputes over these sorts of things, not "city planners."

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