Folha de São Paulo
July 15, 2019
Carlo Ratti and Philip Yang
Let's not fool ourselves. The current technological revolution puts in the near horizon ingenuities like drones for the transportation of people and goods, autonomous vehicles, and all the possibilities of sharing these artifacts.
The true urban revolution will, however, come less from the innovations of individual transport and much more from the way we distribute and organize city spaces.
Even though images of driverless flying cars are fascinating, public transport will continue to account for substantial part of the demand for day-to-day travel.
Laws of physics and economics make us assume that individual transport will always have greater environmental, territorial, and financial costs than high-capacity collective alternatives.
On the other hand, the digital revolution deepens and reveals several possibilities for optimization and reuse of land, including the spaces currently used extensively by the road system.
Engineering studies show, for example, that intelligent management of traffic flows can quadruple avenues' capacity. And cities will need fewer and fewer parking spaces. Without ride-sharing apps, cars spend 96% of the time parked. With the advent of autonomous vehicles, coupled with sharing technology, 70% of the urban spaces occupied by parking lots can be used for other uses.
Cities should, therefore, consume less space and money on increasing the size of avenues and garages. On the contrary, they must make efforts to reflect how their road networks, optimized by the digital world, can give way to new functions.
Paris, for example, is now thinking about the future of the 35 km of its ring road and the conclusion is clear: less asphalt in streets and more silicon in digital intelligence can give way, there as well as here in S. Paulo, to urban gardens, parks, power generation panels, and housing near workplaces.
To a large extent, the history of the urban space of São Paulo in the 20th century is the history of the invasion of cars in the city. Without realizing it, we succumbed to the usefulness, convenience, and apparent cost-effectiveness of automobiles. We privileged the creation of spaces for cars at the expense of space for people. Without thinking of long-term consequences, we have been gradually stifled by traffic, pollution, the inefficiency of our clogged road arteries.
São Paulo has 17 thousand km of roads, occupying more than 150 million square meters and giving rise to about 3 million parking spaces in the streets. In real estate, it is estimated that approximately half of the total usable area was devoted to garages. The moment now must be to reconquer these spaces occupied by cars.
Fortunately, thanks to a combination of technological innovations and regulatory measures that discourage the construction of garages, the population joins other modes of transportation, collective or shared, electric or active, which demand new and more efficient and secure road network products.
Medium and high capacity networks gain consistency in the city, albeit more slowly than we want. Cycle routes are increasingly populated by scooters and bicycles, while apartments without garages are —thanks also to micro-mobility solutions— the hot new thing on the market.
The moment is now for technology disruption that opens the possibility of rethinking the design of the cities. In this meta-car paradigm that is emerging, it will be up to all of us —markets, governments, and society— to decide whether we apply technologies to sprawl the urban environment and destroy water resources or, instead, to generate compact, economically more functional, environmentally sound and socially fair cities.
Professor of Urban Planning and Technologies and Director of the Senseable City Lab, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Master of Public Administration (Harvard University) and founder of Urbem (Instituto de Urbanismo e Estudos para a Metrópole)