Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Technology and the city

Friday, July 9th, 2010

The internet was supposed to make cities irrelevant.  Creative and high income people would live on mountain tops, connect to others via the internet and urban areas would wither.  Seriously, why live in a city when you can network on Facebook?

Didn’t happen.  Sure, Detroit and Buffalo other similar cities continued to lose population since 2000, but most large US cities are growing.  Even the most dense cities added population including New York, San Francisco and Boston.  This continued urban growth is not confined to technophobes.  It is said that if you want venture capital funding for an internet startup or a social networking company, you need to be within a 20 mile radius of Palo Alto California.  If you know the area, this is a crowded part of urban America.

Why hasn’t technology made cities obsolete?  It could be that we simply need more time.  Perhaps it may take decades for the locational effects of the internet to result in changes in residential choice.  But I am skeptical.  For one thing, the same threat to urban concentration that have been attached to the internet were  used for the telephone.  The rise in the telephone was supposed to  make cities obsolete.  More important, people simply like living in cities.  They like having other people around them and interacting with them.  Living on a mountain top is bad for your health because social isolation harms health.

The field of urban economics tells  us that there are advantages to be had from agglomeration and economies of scale.  Companies and people are more productive when they are near others.  So any preference for isolated rural living, is more than outweighed by the advantages of urban living.  Not that I am convinced this preference really exists.  While cities have been growing, rural areas continue to lose population.  Give it another 30 years, and let’s see if I am right.

The limits of high tech driving

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I have an Iphone, a netbook, high speed wireless in my house, Ipods and every other gizmo I can get my hands on but….

Researchers are working to make cars safer and to facilitate higher car densities.  The goals are to make driving safer and improve traffic flow.  Given that over 40,000 people die each year in traffic related injuries, this is a good thing.  Each death and injury represents human suffering.  Each accident is a loss of time and money.  But will these high tech gadgets really solve the problems of autos in this country?

Researchers are developing sensors on cars that can automatically detect how close cars are, stop cars if they are about to hit a stationary object or a pedestrian, perhaps they will be entirely driverless. You will be able to sit back, let the computer take you to your destination, perhaps even get some shut eye or read.  These innovations will allow more cars to use a given stretch of road and reduce accidents by reducing human error. They hold the promise of reducing accidents caused by fatigue and distraction or even by alcohol.

Putting aside the skepticism that these mechanisms will work 100% of the time (I keep thinking of the old joke – If Microsoft built cars they would crash a couple of times a day), let’s assume they will work.  We will have fewer accidents and deaths.  Capacity will be increased.

We will also have continued obesity problems, physical inactivity, over consumption of land, sprawl, etc.  In other words, these new technologies will not solve all of the many problems associated with car use.  The overreliance on cars causes so many problems, have had such a profound negative impact on society, that mere technological changes to make them more efficient will miss the point.

The use of these technologies are what are known as narrow solutions.  They solve a small (but important) problem, but ignore the broad problems.  They are literally no panacea to the problems posed by cars in this country.