Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

There Are Changes Bigger Than Self-Driving Cars Coming

Online shopping and the automation of jobs are going to transform cities.

automated city illo
(Shutterstock)
Everybody in the business of cities these days is talking about autonomous vehicles and how they will change our urban future: less parking, more continuous traffic, no traffic signals, Uber without drivers. But the truth is that the change we are beginning to see in cities today -- probably the biggest change since the introduction of the automobile -- is much more profound than just self-driving cars.

Cities are ultimately engines of commerce. They exist primarily because there is economic efficiency in proximity. But as work is automated and transactions move online, the nature of that economic efficiency will be transformed.

The shift to online shopping, for example, holds the potential to be just as revolutionary for cities as the shift to self-driving cars. We’re already seeing how brick-and-mortar stores are on the decline, leaving in their wake both urban and suburban blight, as well as new opportunities for real estate development.

But e-commerce is also fundamentally changing the nature of urban congestion, as more and more UPS and FedEx trucks pile up on the streets. In fact, it’s altering the very economic basis for cities by eliminating retail jobs but replacing them with jobs at fulfillment centers in desired locations. This has been good for some cities, such as Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem and Allentown. Still, the trend will further accelerate the winner-loser pattern among cities: If there’s no fulfillment center, there are no retail jobs.

Perhaps the most pervasive transformation will be automation and the impact on jobs. In the 20th century, cities thrived because successful companies needed to have huge workforces in concentrated locations -- be it a Ford manufacturing plant in Detroit or a Fortune 500 office building in Manhattan. Today, many of those jobs are being done by robots. That’s why manufacturing employment is going down even as manufacturing output is going up. 

But that doesn’t mean jobs will go away. It means human jobs will be reoriented around human skills such as creativity, empathy and personal connection. And those jobs require face-to-face contact, which means they’ll be most successful if they are concentrated in cities.

The work that people do keeps changing over time. But cities don’t go away. They simply reinvent themselves to focus on the face-to-face work people must do to keep the economy chugging. And that’s the most likely future scenario for urban life in America. 

Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?
Sponsored
As more state and local jurisdictions have placed a priority on creating sustainable and resilient communities, many have set strong targets to reduce the energy use and greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with commercial and residential buildings.