Dallas' Sprawl Could Go on Forever Thanks to Self-Driving Electric Pod Cars, Researcher Says

Plano in 1891
Plano in 1891
Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler

Density is good. Regionalism is bad. Dallas' city government should focus on the city itself, not on getting in good with our suburban neighbors by forming partnerships that hurt the city itself. These are things Unfair Park has heard so often that it basically takes them to be true. For Dallas to become the proverbial "world-class city" it must focus on its urban core, promoting transit, walkability and growing up rather than growing out. If those things don't happen, the thinking goes, then the city's long-term existence is in doubt. We'll be crushed under the weight of toll lanes and the cars of distracted commuters scurrying north at the end of the workday.

What, though, if that wasn't true? What if there was a way forward for auto-centric, low-density cities ringed by suburbs that didn't require a paradigm shift so much as being just a little more purposeful about the trajectory the city was already on?

That's the idea proposed by Dr. Anthony Townsend, the Senior Research Scientist at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management at New York University, in his paper "Re-Programming Mobility."

"We wanted to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy in the planning community that density and transit is the only solution," he says. "It works great here in New York City it may not work great in other cities that have already committed to low density sprawl."

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Townsend presents four scenarios in the paper, for Atlanta in 2028, Los Angeles in 2030, New Jersey in 2029 and Boston in 2032. Atlanta 2028 is applicable to Dallas, he says, because the cities face an exceedingly similar set of circumstances. Both have a majority of the population that lives outside of the core city, low density and inefficient and under-utilized public transportation systems.

The solution to these issues, as proposed by Townsend, is "solar-powered, self-driving sprawl." The thinking goes like this: sprawl is the ideal land use pattern for developing a solar grid that can power the electric cars of residents while still providing the electricity that the region needs to function. He quotes from a paper issued in 2013 by University of Auckland researchers:

"[S]uburbia is not only the most efficient collector of solar energy but that enough excess electricity can be generated to power daily transport needs of suburbia and also contribute to peak daytime electrical loads in the city centre... While a compact city may be more efficient for the internal combustion engine vehicles, a dispersed city is more efficient when distributed generation of electricity by [photovoltaic solar cells] is the main energy source and [electric vehicles] are the means of transport."

Put very simply -- you can check out the full paper below -- suburbs such as the ones proposed would create an ideal lab for experimentation by a company like Google to test products like self-driving, electric-powered pod cars. Commutes would be streamlined and could be made at greater speeds, so work-related incentives for living near the city center would be lessened.

A city like Dallas, under Townsend's framework, could simply grow its way out of being unsustainable. Additional sprawl wouldn't necessarily be positive for the quality of life of those living in it, but the region itself wouldn't be in danger of collapsing in on itself.

"We were really just trying to understand 'what if there were a way to retrofit suburbia that makes it more sustainable from an environmental point of view," Townsend says. "The caveat to that scenario is that's just one of the negative consequences of sprawl. All of the other aspects like social isolation, the segregation of racial and ethnic groups, the health factors associated with children who don't walk, those things don't get fixed by solar powered electric vehicles."

Re-Programming Mobility Report


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