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There Are Changes Bigger Than Self-Driving Cars Coming

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

automated city illo
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.
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