Sun, Jul

How Technology Will Help Angelenos Flee to the New ‘Urbs’

FUTURE WATCH-The potassium is about to hit the water in urban planning. In other words, the waste material shall soon collide with the wind-making machine. I refer to the mixing of self-driving electric cars with Virtual Presence. 

The explosive ramifications of this event will impact the cities, the suburbs and the exurbs. In fact, it will create a new type of “urbs” for which we don’t yet have a name. Presently, we have the “inner city” which is a kind word for “slum.” We have the “core” and “central city” which usually mean the downtown area, and we have suburbs, referring to where people sleep and begin their commutes each morning. More recently, we have the exurbs. 

As pointed out by Richard Morrill in New Geography, “Exurbia is the area of intense commuting to the urban core from beyond the urbanized area boundary, and it can be differentiated between rural territory (a.k.a. “sprawl”) and satellite towns.” 

Naming the space beyond exurbia confounds us right now since it cannot be defined by geography alone. It arises primarily due to Virtual Presence, but the electric self-driving car is also instrumental as it will transform our perception of distance. Angelenos already measure distance in time, but with Virtual Presence and self-driving cars, the nature of drive-time itself will be altered. Perhaps, this “living space beyond exurbia” will be more defined as a state of mind or as a life style choice. 

The Impact of Self-Driving Electric Cars 

Since cars will soon be electric, urban air pollution will have nothing to do with automobiles. Clean cars will undercut 95% of the rationale people cite for using bicycles to commute rather than individual cars. Car-haters are irate that they are losing one of their best anti-car arguments, but who cares? 

Far more transformative than the change to electric powered cars is the self-driving car. Self-driving cars will make commuting time far less important. 

The major problem with long commutes is the dead-time that occurs when the driver must pay attention to the road. Although we can listen to the radio or to books-on-tape, these are not activities we normally perform. We do it because, while driving, we cannot do other stuff. 

With the self-driving car, the commuter can watch the TV news, or write reports, or make a conference call. I expect NordicTrack will even invent some contraption for exercising while commuting. Because self-driving cars will allow us to do many activities which we would be doing if we were not driving, commute times will become less important. In fact, a longer commute time might be beneficial. I may like to have two hours to write the sales report rather than only 45 minutes. 

When commute times become less important, people will move farther from the urban cores. This future will be a financial disaster for dense urban apartment projects. 

The Impact of Virtual Presence 

Someday soon, along with Smart Phones, Virtual Presence and self-driving vehicles will be omnipresent. Although we have Virtual Presence technology right now, other factors are impeding its development. However, it cannot be stopped. 

Presently, we associate Virtual Presence with Telecommuting, i.e. working at home. However, Virtual Shopping may arrive before the huge leaps in telework via Virtual Presence. Retailers are already opening virtual stores rather than merely giving us lists with product photographs. Whenever your physical presence is not required, people will be using Virtual Presence. 

Virtual Presence arrives when we realize that we are freed from the computer screen and can roam about our rooms while using Virtual Presence. There will be wall size monitors with cameras and mics to track us. In fact, technologically speaking, we will be able to outfit our entire homes, be able to go anywhere, even out on the patio, and still stay connected to the system. 

As we spend more time at home, we will demand larger houses to avoid cabin fever. This will be the death knell for the over-built, small apartments in urban cores like DTLA. The real financial disaster will hit this market when the foreign investors in China, Brazil and Russia realize that Angelenos have fled the city and the luxury apartment vacancy rate creeps toward 50%. 

In addition, people will not commute from Newhall Ranch via bike so the demand for bike lanes, which impede real traffic, will fall off. 

The Explosion of Electric Self-Driving Cars and Virtual Presence 

Self-driving cars will add a horrendous number of vehicles to the roads. In addition to the trips we now take, self-driving cars mean robot cars will run errands for us, like going to the grocery store or picking up the dry cleaning. Virtual retailers (except for Target) will have their self-driving cars roaming the streets to deliver goods to consumers. 

Exactly how all this new technology will balance out is not known; people are inventive and many possible options are still not known. A few things, however, do seem clear: 

(1) Electric Cars Can Be Charged at Home 

Single family homes will be able to generate their own electricity, including for their cars. The dramatic increase in the efficiency of solar panels and the drop in cost will make apartments much more expensive than owning a detached home. 

People living in detached homes with sufficient roof space for panels will charge their cars for free as well as run their homes for free; the economic savings per family will become irresistible. 

(2) Detached Homes Will be Vastly Cheaper than Apartments 

Detached homes on the urban fringe will be both larger and less expensive to purchase. When one can live between Newhall and Victorville, one’s initial housing cost will be one half or one third the cost of living in the City of Los Angeles. In contrast, paying rent for a small apartment in the Basin, gaining no equity, having no fruit trees or a yard for the kids and the dog, plus being subject to ever increasing DWP rate hikes will make renting an apartment a fool’s choice. 

(3) The Boon to the Overall Non-LA Economy 

People living in the valley and desert areas where the housing and energy costs are dramatically lower than in the City of Los Angeles will have substantially more disposable income. Thus, they will have a more thriving economy than Los Angeles which is burdened by horrendous debt to pay off, including the hundreds of billions Garcetti is borrowing and giving to his developer friends. 

(5) The Unnamed Space 

A significant portion of people will lose all geographic connection to cities. They will live far beyond the exurbs in places like Costa Rica, New Zealand or new areas which have yet to be imagined. Virtual Presence will be the major factor in allowing people to move beyond any physical commute. 

Higher paying, intellectual work is the most portable. As individuals leave the dense urban areas, we should think about the consequences for the City of Los Angeles: it will have a much smaller, poorer tax base making it impossible to pay off the debts for the mega-projects and mass transit currently being funded and imagined.


(Richard Lee Abrams is a Los Angeles attorney and a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at: [email protected]. Abrams views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.