The Roaring Twenties were an iconic time in American history. A time of economic and social change, they quite literally paved the way for the age of the automobile. Between the Federal Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921, opportunities abounded for cities to embrace the change and grow alongside the booming auto industry. One city in particular did just that: Los Angeles set out to brand itself as the city of the automobile.
At the turn of the century, Los Angeles was much younger than the centuries-old cities of the east coast. Towns like Boston had been built around horse-drawn carriages and pedestrian traffic and thus could not adapt their streets for cars easily or efficiently. Los Angeles, however, could expand alongside—and in conjunction with—the automobile. The rapid incorporation of the car into LA’s identity allowed for car-centric retailing to explode in the area. Not surprisingly, LA soon became the city of angels, drive-ins, and roadsters.
The 2010s may be like the 1920s in terms of automotive revolution. Autonomous cars are just around the corner, ride-sharing is booming, and many individuals are moving away from car ownership altogether. Will the city and state governments of today take advantage of this change in the same way LA did nearly a century ago?
Many places are doing just that. In 2011 Nevada became the first state to grant licenses to autonomous vehicles. As a result, Google began testing their self-driving cars there, and other companies soon followed. Even European agencies are bringing business to the state in order to test autonomous prototypes. With this accommodating regulatory structure, Nevada has shown its willingness to welcome innovation and change and, by doing so, has attracted companies and stimulated economic growth.
In contrast, Detroit spent the first decade of the 21st century in economic decline. Both General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy during the recession, and unemployment soared. The same companies that laid off workers a decade ago, though, are now developing self-driving cars and launching ride-sharing apps like GM’s Maven. Similarly, Amazon has opened a new corporate office in downtown Detroit: a symbol of the company’s commitment to Detroit’s rapid growth, in and outside of the automotive industry. The city is promoting its base of well-educated residents alongside low residential and operation costs. Recent reports have shown that Detroit is on par with Silicon Valley in tech job growth, and it’s branding itself as such.
Unlike Nevada and Michigan, certain places in Europe are moving in the opposite direction and distancing themselves from the automotive industry. Cars are viewed as detrimental to society because of their high carbon emissions and congestion of city streets. As a result, many envision the cities of the future to be completely car-less. Such cars were never necessary, and some cities never adopted them in the first place. Venice, Italy, for example, has always thrived without them.
Oslo, Norway, is leaning into this idea and has recently announced that cars will be banned from the city center by 2019. The city plans to promote walking, cycling, and taking public transport to enhance local businesses. Lanes once reserved for cars can be turned into public spaces which would knit the city together and contribute to Oslo’s brand image: green, safe, and community-centered.
Autonomous vehicles, however, will introduce new challenges. How will cities fund themselves to keep abreast of this changing cityscape? How will they pay for public safety programs without the steady income of parking and speeding tickets? How will public transportation fare? As the price of autonomous ride-sharing drops, the middle class may abandon public transportation, resulting in a struggle to fund the bus or rail routes still needed by lower income households. In order to transition seamlessly into the future and to improve both their image and brand, cities will have to understand and solve these issues before they even happen.
Efficient and forward-thinking transportation will forever be the hallmark of a thriving city, and cities that capitalize on these ideas will be the ones that pave the way into the future. If successful, they will set up potentials for economic growth, social reform, and citizen safety. The question is: which city will come out on top?
– Sarah Schechter