Podcast Transcript 307: The Ghost Road

November 9, 2020

This week we’re chatting with Anthony Townsend about his book Ghost Road: Beyond The Driverless Car.  We talk about the potential scary future financialization of transportation could create, how the pandemic has shot delivery automation into the future, and what the potential future of self driving vehicles could mean for urban form.

Jeff Wood (0s):
You’re listening to the Talking Headways Podcast Network it’s Talking Headways or a weekly podcast about sustainable transportation. And during the design I’m Jeff Wood this week we’re chatting with Anthony Townsend about his book. Ghost Road Beyond The Driverless Car We talk about the potential scary future financialization of transportation could create how the pandemic has shot delivery automation into the future, and much, much more Stay

1 (26s):
With us.

Jeff Wood (29s):
Today’s podcast is brought to you by The Overhead Wire Media is production of Raymon unwin.town Planning in Practice. If you want to purchase our recent audiobook production of this 1909 classic, go to raymon.com and click on the link to Awesound there. You can download it as a podcast series where each chapter is a new episode. You can also get it. Wherever audio books are sold. Today’s podcast is also brought to you by our super generous Patrion supporters. Thanks so much to those that listen and support each month. We really appreciate it. And now if you’d like to get ahold of our BAS only soccer style scarf with dedicated lane designs donate $10 or more a month on Patrion and we’ll send one along. We also really appreciate the one or $2 month support. So if you’d like to sign up and keep us going, go to patrion.com/the Overhead Wire that’s patrion.com/the Overhead Wire You can also purchase the scarf by going to The Overhead wire.com.

Jeff Wood (1m 18s):
And I would be remissed if we didn’t mention The Overhead Wire newsletter, we’ve been doing it for 14 years, and I hope to be doing it for 14 more. We’re now at 67,000 links tagged by topic and Citi for subscribers. Sign up today for a two week trial by going to The Overhead wire.com. Okay. Before we get to this week show, I want to let folks know that they can get this podcast wherever you find your podcasts, including I heard radio Spotify overcast Stitcher and of course Apple podcasts. Make sure you subscribe. So you don’t miss an episode and subscribing means to get built this show Talking Headways and Mondays at The Overhead Wire where this music I’m talking about comes from on the same feed two fund podcasts. One great channel subscribe today Will Anthony.

Jeff Wood (2m 7s):
Townsend welcome to the Talking Headways Podcast hi, it’s great to be here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Anthony Townsend (2m 14s):
I am now the urbanist in residence at Cornell tech, which is the newest engineering school in New York city, I think eight years ago. And this year has launched the third of its hubs. We don’t have departments. That’s focusing on urban tech and I came aboard in the midst of this pandemic actually in residents’ at my own residence or not at the campus, which is close and we’re doing all the virtual instruction or the semester. So its super weird, but you know, we’re, we’re really just trying to understand, you know, how all of these technologies can be leverage, not just deal with immediate crisis facing cities’, but also in the long term recovery, we climb out to the whole we’ve dug ourselves into, but yeah, that’s, that’s kind of my world now that can academia spent most of the last 10 years writing and consulting a lot of work with philanthropies corporations, governments, helping them, you know, mostly look at longterm trends and scenarios around technological change and cities.

Anthony Townsend (3m 13s):

Jeff Wood (3m 13s):
If you get into the nexus between technology and cities.

Anthony Townsend (3m 16s):
So I originally started out working in the ISP industry in the mid nineties. My first job out of undergrad was working for at and T Worldnet service, which was their dial up ISP service that they started in the mid nineties. And you know, I ended up pulling out the graveyard shifts one month and it would spend my nights looking up at this giant map of at, and T’s Global frame relay network. I was like the network operations map. And if you remember like the war room from, from war games, just kinda what it looked like. And I was just fascinated by the geography of these networks and the fact that, you know, it seemed to follow the old networks and I wanted to understand why that was, and that led me down the road of studying telecommunications infrastructure, which are traditionally, has just been really neglected in urban planning for a whole bunch of reasons.

Anthony Townsend (4m 11s):
But you know, the timing of was to really try and understand it because it going to become so important and the decades that have followed

Jeff Wood (4m 19s):
All this stuff going on with the FCC rulings must be interesting to you at this point as well. Imagine which ones are in particular as well. Basically Ajit PI is kind of trying to limit the amount of charges that cities can put on telecommunications companies for putting up infrastructure and things like that. It’s just been a fascinating to watch all that stuff kind of happened and the back and forth between cities and the telecom companies okay.

Anthony Townsend (4m 40s):
Around the five G deployment. Yeah, this is, this is, you know, something that has built up over the years and just because of the physics of 5g and the demand for wireless data, the network’s now are much more fine grained and there’s more antennas. There are closer to the ground are more visible and the backlash is more pronounced. And I think all the other things that’s the tech industry has, has done to, you know, raise people’s hackles. I’m looking at you Mark Zuckerberg, okay.

Jeff Wood (5m 11s):
He’s a ride around the corner here. Now.

Anthony Townsend (5m 13s):
It has really given people, you know, just a heightened sensitivity to this. There are some valid questions about, and the telecom industry. They are masters at the game of, of lobbying instead of, you know, they’ve intervened at the state level where all the rules that are set and have been set for the last 125 years and cities have very little freedom in the U S to maneuver. Unfortunately.

Jeff Wood (5m 34s):
Yeah. Well the book is called Ghost Road Beyond The Driverless Car what got you to write it?

Anthony Townsend (5m 40s):
So I had the opportunity starting in 2017 to work with Bloomberg philanthropies on their joint project, but the Aspen Institute center for urban innovation who has initiative on cities in autonomous vehicles. And around that time, Mike Bloomberg, I think had been tipped off too, you know, the rapid advances we’re going on in self driving vehicles and potentially some of the risks that that might pose for, you know, the progressive moves that we were making around transportation and mobility. And that in many ways there was a risk of big tech companies, you know, like Google and a new car companies like Tesla.

Anthony Townsend (6m 21s):
And then the old car companies have reasserting a 20th century perfected version of Car based mobility on cities. And so those two organizations brought together a group of 10 cities for about 18 months through a series of workshops to talk about what their interest was. And I was brought in two research and present a series of reports in forecasts, helping understand what is the future for these technologies are and what could it be if we tried to steer it more in the interest of, of, of an urban agenda. And when I got done with that, I realized that it was really important to translate that into a format that could be, you know, pushed out to a bigger and broader audience because this really is a historic shift and the technological basis for urban mobility.

Anthony Townsend (7m 13s):
And it goes way, way beyond just to automobiles. And in fact, I think, you know, if the books is nothing else, it says that which is focusing on a driverless car is really, you know, or a red herring. And it’s all the other things that move. They are going to benefit from automation in the short term. And that if properly harness, that’s actually a really, really good thing for cities, we can create vehicles that are able to fit into the built environments and the visions that we have for those built environments, much more smoothly and a much more carefully crafted ways than automobiles, you know, which was greedy and dangerous and sort of took the space and never gave it back.

Jeff Wood (7m 54s):
Well, yeah. You talk about many other things than just passenger vehicles. You have three topics in the book, specialization, materialization, financialization, I’m curious which one was your favorite to read it?

Anthony Townsend (8m 4s):
I mean, there’s so there’s favorite and there is the most important,

Jeff Wood (8m 8s):
It was a good distinction.

Anthony Townsend (8m 9s):
Specialization is the of you. And I talk about this in the book and Brian Boyer, who was my collaborator on a lot of the research for Bloomberg philanthropies and actually is from dash Marshall, which was based in Detroit, you know, right in the heart of the kind of historical home and the auto industry. We did all the illustrations for the book. He last year with his students that the university of Michigan went on to do a robot census where they catalog. I like more than 80 different commercially available self driving vehicles that or not, you know, passenger cars that are on the market. And they’re mostly super specialized things like forklifts. There’s a Finnish company that’s just released essentially was like a self driving Roomba for our streets.

Anthony Townsend (8m 55s):
So are these things that are coming and the, in the first big, like a real commercial self driving vehicles were the trucks that were, you know, used for the big mind in Australia. And John Deere is self driving. Tractor is kind of a childish a fascination with like all of the things that go with the room and hung. When you start to look at these catalogs, have all the different kinds of vehicles. And then when you start to add the robots in which was also advancing, you know, very quickly and realize just how quickly the line blurs between what’s a robot, what’s a vehicle what’s made for an indoor environment and what’s made for outdoor an urban environment. It’s just really kind of exciting, particularly when you realize that it represents a pretty thorough and permanent and bundling of the automobile and the bundling of the automobile.

Anthony Townsend (9m 45s):
That has been the thing that has caused us so much hassle over the decades. And there’s been a day, even an hour that goes by that, you know, I don’t get one of those pictures in my Twitter feed showing here’s how many people Alain can carry. People are on bikes, here’s on buses, here’s in cars will, you know, breaking down that box into smaller vehicles and different kinds of vehicles is really the fundamental promise of automated mobility. The most important story of the book, because the financialization story. And I think I really just scratched the surface on it. It was more of a warning bell or a red flag. They are trying to understand, you know, what’s the worst that can happen if we allow private capital and deregulation to do to urban Transportation, you know, what has done to energy and electricity in particular or, you know, food commodities like green or things like that, or, or the housing finance market.

Anthony Townsend (10m 43s):
And it becomes the thing that two, a large degree is no longer about the services being delivered, but you know, the tale of finances is wagging the dog and that you have this, this whole Corpus of financial instruments and obligations that are built up on top of it and that the flows of revenue that come off of it and that happening in an environment where there’s only a handful of players to control the networks in control the computation, that’s gonna be used to organize at all and the nightmare scenarios there, or there’s a lot of them, but you know, what, if we get an Enron like player saying in the ride, hail does this who starts, you know, withholding mobility when it’s in their financial interest to do it in the same way that Enron, you know, it was withholding electricity from California during the heat waves, to just like the price, you know, juice, their margins, you no, do we want to live in a world where nothing moves like literally nothing moves unless Amazon or Google, it gets a piece of the action.

Anthony Townsend (11m 42s):
There are a lot of plays out there and a lot of technological platforms being deployed that are moving us towards that kind of world, a lot of business strategies as well. And, you know, I looked back in history at the transition from horse-drawn streetcars to electric streetcars. Well, you know, it’s by no means a perfect comparison, the shift in capital requirements that came along with that in how you went from entrepreneurs, being able to pool family funds and get into the business with a single vehicle at an animal too, really having to raise funds to build a rail network and generating facility in a power line networks.

Anthony Townsend (12m 22s):
And that created the conditions for a really kind of cozy corrupt relationships with political powers. And especially as we move into this deep, deep fiscal crisis for cities, you can start to see some very, very dangerous alignments of fiscal desperation on one hand, by a city governments and a very, very deep pocketed mobility, Minneapolis who, you know, I can buy their way in either providing, you know, lump sum payments for franchises or all kinds of revenue shares, monetizing public assets in other ways, in ways that are going to be hard to get out of and potentially really detrimental to the public interest or will make it harder to do things like expand mobility to underserved groups.

Anthony Townsend (13m 10s):
And so that, to me, the more I thought about I’m going to have to stop thinking about it because it started mine. You know, I can have reached the limits of my expertise, but every time I talked to, you know, I live in New York city area and every time I would talk to friends of mine who worked in finance after they stopped getting really excited about it and realized that I was talking about it because I thought it was horrifying, they would basically say, yeah, that’s, that’s really plausible. Like either people are already sniffing that opportunity or yes, that’s, that’s the likely direction that, that people will want to go after if given the opportunity. And so the reason I wrote about that was because I didn’t wanna write about safety.

Anthony Townsend (13m 51s):
Like I could care less about the safety of automated vehicles. They’re either going to be safe or their not, you call it a red herring. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s so much attention on it. Like the one thing that our, at least the automotive Transportation does well is regulate vehicle safety. You know, people don’t die in crashes because their vehicles are unsafe. The die because of the drivers are a bad at driving or they are breaking the law Right. So I think we only have Gaines there to come in. I think understand the relationship between market’s new mobility services, an automated system’s is really where there a danger zone I was going to be. There is so much in there. I wanna unpack. Yep.

Jeff Wood (14m 31s):
The first thing that I, when you started talking about like kind of agribusiness, I was thinking of Transportation as kind of the high fructose corn syrup of And and corn subsidies and all that stuff. But I also want to talk about, you know, you had a discussion also about congestion pricing, and I’m wondering if there’s that, and then there’s also the Chicago use of parking meters downtown, where are they sold off a number of, of assets to get a lump sum, like you said, and then it’s already paid off for the company that purchased it. And now they’re going to have like 60 years or something of profits, which is ridiculous to give away such an asset, but also to allow somebody to pray on the city like that. But I’m just wondering if, you know, you think congestion pricing and some of these other mechanisms are a gateway drug.

Anthony Townsend (15m 12s):
Yeah. I mean, that’s sort of how I described it in the book of life. And I was really, that was this sensational framing to get people’s attention. I think congestion pricing is, is a good idea for all the reasons that I think many, many people support. If, you know, we have to Fairley price roads, right. And a lot of roads are under-priced now. And there’s all kinds of bad reasons for that. And it leads to all kinds of bad outcomes. I was trying to paint in the book was a picture of sort of regulatory capture, have a congestion pricing system, buy a bad mobility. Monopolous Andy, you know, this is something that I actually first got the idea from the economists.

Anthony Townsend (15m 56s):
There is a column I think around 2017, if it was exploring this possibility and the more I sat with it, the more it started to make sense to me because what’s happening, particularly with SoftBank and Uber and the kinds of maneuverings that mesh IOC, some of the chairman of SoftBank has been making his, that they’ve systematically been pulling as they’ve acquired more and more of the retail companies around the world, systematically pulling them out of markets where they’re in competition with each other. So in Singapore, as soon as the Uber grad merger was executed, Uber was pulled out, grab more or less consolidated like an 85% market share.

Anthony Townsend (16m 35s):
And the Fair’s went up a pretty swiftly pretty significantly, you know, Singapore, which has not a country of ineffective government levied look is I think the greatest, you know, anti-competitive fine. And the country’s history have something like $18 million if I recall. And so this was like our rounding error for grab there. And so, you know, it was, it was just slapped on the wrist. And to this day they still operate with a near monopoly in, in Singapore. So if you think about the kind of power that a company that can wield when they essentially manage both the supply and the demand that through pricing, they can generate more ride requests at any time of day in any district of the city.

Anthony Townsend (17m 26s):
And if they want to eat and then they can adjust the compensation, they can just the routing of vehicles to create the supply to mean it. So you can imagine this happening in New York city or San Francisco five years from now where, you know, Lyft has gone. Uber was the only one left most of the traffic in a central business district, especially at the times when they’re really high dynamic congestion price is in his ride heel vehicles that puts that operator at an incredible negotiating position because their essentially the single payer of the congestion fee, and even if they aren’t, you know, in a competitive environment, Today passing those congestion fees along to their riders.

Anthony Townsend (18m 8s):
I mean, it’s been pretty clear that in New York city, when we were moving towards the congestion pricing pretty quickly last year, that Uber and Lyft were just going to have to suck it up. Then once they get the monopoly, they’ll just pass it on. So their sort of becoming this gatekeeper of congestion, total revenue between writer’s in the city, literally the ability to turn the tap and the congestion revenue or not. So, you know, imagine they’re not getting what they want from the city. They might start doing things like incentivizing passenger’s to get dropped off at the edge of the congestion cordon or dropping people off to the edge of the congestion cordon and having they get picked up on the other side of the street. They’re not having them walk across the court. And I mean, there’s so many different ways that they can gain it.

Anthony Townsend (18m 51s):
And I like playing that game would just be a matter of, of code changes. So it would be a very difficult thing I think, to keep up with. And so to me, I looked at that and said, this looks a lot like, you know, the kind of relationship that existed back, you know, in the days of a streetcar barons, were you, there was this, this chaotic system, the cities were really desperate for private capital writers were sort of the ones footing the bill for it, and everybody else is lining their pockets. You know, I, I think it would be very easy to build a congestion pricing system and a riot or regulation or whatever, urban mobility regulation scheme to prevent that kind of outcome.

Anthony Townsend (19m 31s):
But what I wanna, what I wanted to show again, here’s the worst thing that could happen. Let’s just assume, you know, the worst intentions in the most amount of green on the part of the mobility operator’s and the least competent in a response on the side of the city and play that out. And, you know, this seems like it would be the kind of natural endpoint of that.

Jeff Wood (19m 52s):
So that’s the, that’s kind of the scary part I promise most of the book is pretty fun. There are some interesting connections to the house of sod and other, you know, money related stuff. But let’s talk a bit about the fun stuff. Yeah, sure, sure. You know that the names for a cruise control, it kind of made me laugh out loud at my favorite, I think was control automatic. What was it

Anthony Townsend (20m 15s):
To touch a medic or the speed of step is another good one.

Jeff Wood (20m 20s):
And how important is the language and in how we talk about all these issues, have you talk about this Transportation

Anthony Townsend (20m 24s):
Oh, it’s huge. Got it. I mean, we live in a world, you know, where we have alternative facts in, in so many different ways of kind of gaslighting people around what is and what isn’t true. Even looking at the language of self driving technology of Driverless technology and the one that I find the most offensive, the autonomous technology, because there’s nothing autonomous about these, their, you know, some of the most or infrastructure dependent vehicles that has ever been invented that they listen to wireless transmission is from satellites over our head is to orient themselves. They require connections to, you know, megabit per second, low latency cellular networks, five G networks in order to download gigabytes of map data every second, as you, as you roll along.

Anthony Townsend (21m 12s):
And in fact, they will kick themselves out of self driving mode if they lose that connection. One of the most kind of surprising things I found when researching the book was when GM launched their super cruise feature for Cadillac, which is essentially, you know, Cadillac’s version of Tesla’s autopilot. It comes with a coverage map because GM isn’t or GM his lawyers, I guess aren’t as bold as Tesla’s lawyers. And they will only let you drive on roads that have been like extensively mapped and have really, really good broadband cellular coverage. And when they first launched that service, you would look at it. And like, there was one stretch of, I guess, like a, I’m going to say, maybe I 10 going North out of it, Denver towards Laramie, Wyoming, just North of Boulder.

Anthony Townsend (21m 60s):
Okay. Where there’s like a 10 mile stretch. And I know that Road, it is straight as an arrow. There’s like a 10 mile stretch coming out of Boulder. Okay. Or like the coverage ends for super cruise. And I was like reading it. I was kind of imagining, you know, if you’ve got up a good head of speech, you could probably hit that stretch of road come off of super cruise and never really no it before you, you know, went long. Okay. And Chris, back into the next couple of, and the reason it’s there, because there’s a very poor cellular service there and GM won’t let you won’t let your crews along without being able to grab the latest map and share all the telemetry.

Anthony Townsend (22m 41s):
So, I mean, even when you get down to just like lane markings on the ground where I live in New Jersey, it’s remarkable when they repaint the lane markings on the streets and you’re like, wow, this was like a two lane road. Cause we thought it was just, you know, like a one lane or kind of a free for all. It was actually the way they repainted it. Autonomous vehicles depend on that, unlike you and I, they can’t figure out the environment. So I think the language of super important, because it signals talk to us how we are supposed to be mobile or how we’re supposed to move in and our relationship to technology and a landscape. And so I think most of that language so far has been kind of weaponized from marketing and not in ways that support like a sustainable urban mobility division going forward.

Anthony Townsend (23m 29s):
They have been really kind of anti-human anti urban. And I think what I’m hoping is that we can start to think about in the same way that like this evolution from say, like cellular phone to mobile phone started to focus our attention, not only how the phone works, but on what it provided for us or the shift from a horseless carriage, the automobile from like what we’re leaving behind too, what we are gaining this autonomy that we’ll start to find words to really explain what is the benefit? What is the positive vision of the future that this technology unlocks for us? And I don’t know what the answer is for that yet, but I think, you know, we’re sort of on the cusp now of leaving those words behind and finding some new ones.

Jeff Wood (24m 13s):
You also talk about the history of the autonomous vehicle frenzy and the $80 billion that’s been spent on R and D. Do you think we’re wasting brain power working on an AAV solution that might never come?

Anthony Townsend (24m 24s):
I mean, I think this is better money spent. Then a lot of the other things that, you know, the tech industry has, has spent money on like precision targeting have advertising and whatnot. There are so many ancillary and spinoff uses of the systems that are being built. And the core technologies, autonomous driving has pushed deep learning really up against the wall. And there’s, there’s a lot of kind of Ang Strait now about whether it’s really going to go any further. If we reach the limits to the new AI methods need to be employed, or what do we need to do don’t we need to now go back and look at instrumenting roads again, again, getting back to the idea of autonomy. A whole pitch for autonomy 10 years ago was we don’t need government.

Anthony Townsend (25m 7s):
We don’t need infrastructure. We’re just gonna send these magic box is out on the road. They’re going to, they are going to retrofit everything on their own with software. There you go to some place like Canada, nobody in Canada talks about autonomous vehicles, autonomous and connected vehicles because they know that these things can’t see in the snow and they happen to be a country that’s covered in snow half the year. So, you know, Canada knows that this means upgrading the road infrastructure as well. So there’s a lot of angst around it, but it’s when you see things like Hitachi, the world’s largest maker of electric wheelchairs moving quickly, you know, building a whole number of different automated wheelchair prototypes and that Medicare and Medicaid have probably paid for tens of millions, of, of electric wheelchairs in the United States in, in the last decade, over the next decade, they may buy automated wheelchairs.

Anthony Townsend (26m 1s):
And for all of the sort of horrifying vision’s of like, Oh, it’s gonna be like Wally, we are all going to be in, you know, self-driving wheelchairs the screen in front of our faces for senior citizens who, you know, are isolated and don’t have independence. That’s a better way to live. I mean, we’ll give them some independence, some mobility, and from like a, an urban mobility, sustainable urban mobility point of view, it would be better if they were doing it in a smaller vehicle, an electric vehicle, that’s a lighter, you know, and its gonna have a lower emission carbon footprint that might be able to blend into a walkable neighborhood than to have them, you know, be getting picked up by a Tesla or a Waymo are or another kind of self-driving full-size vehicle.

Anthony Townsend (26m 45s):
Seeing this technology getting pushed into scooters, you know, like that all have the kind of headaches of it or a scooter and bike share network’s of rebalancing have discarded vehicles left around disinfecting vehicles between riders during the pandemic. These things will now be able to scoot themselves off to the depo, to get disinfected, to get recharged, whatever it needs to be done. They can predictively swarm around, you know, areas where people are gonna need them, whether its a bar letting out are a concert or train arriving in a station. And that is just going to provide so many new tools for urban designers and architects and planners to think about neighborhoods.

Anthony Townsend (27m 27s):
Right. If we don’t have to think about how to get people to switch modes, like if the modes can actually go and make the pitch for a while or people to switch modes by making themselves more convenient by predicting activity patterns, that’s just a whole new set of tools. I think it is going to really challenge some of our assumptions about say what things like walkability means and how do we think about how much we can tail we can use to anchor certain kinds of neighborhoods. I think our expectations are already changing around that very quickly. And that was actually the middle part of the book, the materialization part of the book, you know, we’ve had way too much focused on how automation is going to affect passenger travel.

Anthony Townsend (28m 9s):
When in fact it’s is freight vehicles that have far less risk and, or getting a lot more investment in seeing a lot more applications is actually coming to market right now, you know, pandemic sort of shot us probably like five, five to eight years into the future of a shift from a bricks and mortar two delivery. And you can see that whole industry just mobilizing. I mean, it’s almost like a war time mobilization to take the automation that has worked so well inside the warehouse, inside the form and centers and push it out into the streets. And I think we’re going to see that in an accelerating, okay. Pace over the next couple of years, you know, Amazon drop a billion dollars on Zoucks this summer Silicon Valley self-driving startup.

Anthony Townsend (28m 55s):
Uber still has something going on around the self driving. Google will make a play and this at some point and you know, there’s tons and tons of stuff going on in China around this area, it was going to be really transformative. Okay. Because the economics of automated delivery and retailing, there are just completely different because of the density. So I think that to me is the area where, okay, I feel like cities are so flatfooted right now. They’ve historically spent very little of them. Transportation Planning kind of mind, space and freight and it’s really a really going to clobber them incredibly quickly. All right. What they do have on it. It’s probably, are you going to be focused on trying to prop up the retailers that survive the shake out as to thinking about how do we deal with the influx of all this eCommerce that is coming in to fulfill the demand?

Anthony Townsend (29m 48s):
You know, that the bricks and mortar retailers have left behind as they’ve disappeared.

Jeff Wood (29m 52s):
Yeah. It’s been interesting to watch what’s been going on and especially here in San Francisco, but also just kind of watching the news to see what these companies are doing. You saw a couple of weeks ago, Amazon decided to open up a thousand kind of local stores, closer to people. So people could, I guess go and pick up their packages or do whatever other number of things. While along a lot of streets here, there’s a lot of retail is disappearing and I wonder, you know, what that future holds necessarily because of this and your observation that said we’re kind of light speeding to eight years ahead of time seems Apple. I mean, it seems like people are getting pushed in decisions. They were probably putting off.

Anthony Townsend (30m 28s):
Yeah. I mean essentially it, what Amazon’s doing as replicating ups is a footprint so that they are essentially building a third are, you know, if you believe, or the post office, this is going to survive and like a fourth Nationale parcel carrier. And if they’re going to withdraw or you know, their business, the other ones that they use now and probably handle a lot of themselves. But yeah, I mean, they’re, they’re really looking to be able to fulfill the bulk of stuff that you want to buy within a couple of hours. And that’s just, that’s the biggest category killer like that ever existed. And so in many ways, I mean, I think it’s almost better to have the pain of this shake out. I’ll happen at once because of cities you have economic development can gear up to try to figure out how cities respond to this, this retail calling, you know, that they’ll kind of deal with it now and it’ll be a big mobilization and then they won’t have to deal with it again.

Anthony Townsend (31m 22s):
Or the pain that all come at once and it is going to be painful, but their, there are some precedents spent a lot of times in Singapore working with the government there in Singapore has been, Planning a new central business district called a juror on a Lake district. And therefore casts is the 2055, 65% of all retail purchases will happen online. And the idea is basically to build the district on top of a fulfillment center. So its like the city is on top of you, you know, an an Amazon warehouse. I think the idea’s not to have that warehouse be owned by a single company and for the U S that’s the worst possible short term outcome is that Amazon essentially gets a monopoly on last mile distribution of goods.

Anthony Townsend (32m 5s):
Because then, you know, as we were talking about with Uber earlier, they become, you know, the ferryman, like they get to control the flow of goods. They get to essentially love the attacks on anybody who wants access to that network. And they control the labor conditions, say generate the traffic. And you know, cities tried to somehow monetize access to the curb, which a lot of cities are interested in doing and more will become. So as a lack of relief starts to really bite in the next few months, you know, Amazon’s going to be a really strong negotiating position to push back on them. So I think the question then becomes like where do you do with the rest of the leftover a retail space? And I think the upside of that, again, this is where rethinking like what the neighborhood of the future for all of the thing’s where the need for space is growing.

Anthony Townsend (32m 54s):
And if we do in our period where, you know, like after the 1918 flu, you know, the prevailing style of design, it starts to favor like a little bit more spacing out a little bit more lighten they’re, you know, that space, it might become useful. Four new ways of thinking about school’s new ways of thinking about other kinds of like health and wellness type usages. You know, when you walk around like any big city today, there’s about 50 times more, you know, Jim’s spinning studios and fitness businesses in there were 10 or 20 years ago, yoga, those kinds of things are gonna wanna be centrally located. They are going to use space. He would probably want to use more space. And so like that cultural entertainment, wellness function, education and learning function as Citi can benefit from displacing, you know, the pharmacies and the bank’s and the Payless shoe stores of the world.

Anthony Townsend (33m 44s):
So again, I think, you know, I think there’s opportunities from Transportation point of view, it creates opportunity to put things in, in a city that generate more around the clock traffic, right? So we get a little bit more leveling out of demand. We don’t have to build so much infrastructure for the peak. You know, there are activities that can get shifted around and that the provider’s the venue operators had their own built in incentive to shift around. So you can imagine neighborhood’s where it’s just a lot more constant humdrum of activity around the clock that allows a transportation network to operate and a much smoother fashion with automated vehicles constantly plugged in.

Anthony Townsend (34m 26s):
You could squeeze out all of the other inefficiencies that, you know, lead to congestion and makes it hard for people to choose a good modes and then make other decisions that or good for them. And good for all of us.

Jeff Wood (34m 38s):
We know that cities are changing rapidly, urban places, places with higher densities, but you also put together a typology to look at some of those other spots too, kind of as an exercise in thinking about places outside of cities, I’m wondering how you came about putting together the transect. Okay.

Anthony Townsend (34m 53s):
And the, you know, the transect is a popular tool that the new urbanists, you know, really used effectively to help teach millions of people, probably about density and why density is desirable and good I actually came across him. When I was researching in the last book, smart cities in its original form in urban planning when it was put forth by Patrick Getty’s in Scotland, when he was doing his diagrams of Edinburgh, you called it the Valley section and he used it to describe sort of the relationship between the city center and the periphery and that the way technology has it evolved to allow dense urban settlements. So it’s an old idea, sort of slicing the city, opened like a tree and looking at the rings and you know, I simplified it.

Anthony Townsend (35m 34s):
The new urban has had a six zones I just use for, and really what I just wanted to do is give people a way of starting to approach this question of does automated mobility fever, concentration, or a dispersal because, and that’s really the urban planning chapter, the book. And that’s the question I think it’s on urban planners, mines like, Oh, are we are gearing up for another round of sprawl or is this something that we can actually harness to achieve the things we’ve been trying to achieve, getting people to build and live in a more compact, less energy intensive way and you know, pretty, pretty decisively coming down on the side that it is geared towards concentration.

Anthony Townsend (36m 17s):
And that is the good side of financialization. The kind of most powerful argument you can make against sprawl is, is that it’s expensive. It’s really wasteful and inefficient. And by exposing the distorted decisions of our Transportation policy to more Markit force, we are going to get a lot of inequity if we don’t correct for it. And that’s kind of what I was trying to guard against, potentially some corruption, but we’re also going to get a lot of efficiency and efficiency is going to mean more distance pricing, more demand pricing, and any other pricing scheme that, that operator’s can come up with that we’re willing to pay for. You know, I think that’s, that’s really where the fascinating stuff was going to come from the United I, through all kinds of crazy ideas and here, like, I mean, it will be possible to charge for like almost any kind of micro behavior or the transportation system.

Anthony Townsend (37m 8s):
So, you know, should cities charge more for lefthand turns into oncoming traffic and that is something that potentially could be regulated, right? You don’t have to design it out of the built environment. You just put a rule in the code every time you would make a left hand, turn it on coming traffic, you know, 50% surcharge and the car will decide, well, if I drive around the block making three right turns, I get they’re a minute later, but you know, like that’s the kind of thing that I think the financialization really will bring into the picture, which was this kind of ruthless quest for efficiency. And that will be good for cities, you know, proximity, reducing travel time and reducing travel costs.

Anthony Townsend (37m 50s):
And if we can allow that to play out in a kind of observed harnessed way, it could be really, really wonderful. If anybody follows me on Twitter, you know, you may be thinking like, and listening to this guy and he’s sounds like he believes in, you know, density and walkability, but I find there’s a Twitter account and he is like really against it, like a 15 minute Citi and a lot of other ideas that I think the reason is I’m trying to understand how to a future proof these idea. So, you know, I look at something like that 15 minutes Citi is primarily focused around walkability, which I think is great. But then I also see the fact that, you know, we’re selling literally hundreds of thousands of electric bikes.

Anthony Townsend (38m 31s):
And most of the young people, I know have some kind of electric powered, personal mobility device to how do those technologies, those forms of mobility, which allow them to cover five times as much distance in the time that you or I walked two, a transit stop, or how is that going to affect their ability and their decision making process when they go to choose to a place to live or decide how to get from one place to another and, you know, in aggregate how’s that gonna have an impact on the city? And do we need to maybe update our thinking a little bit and pull some of these ideas out, an anchor that they have in a traditional urban form and address some of these trends.

Jeff Wood (39m 13s):
Do you think cities will ever be able to, this is kind of a hobby topic of mind. Do you think cities will ever be able to create transportation as a public utility? What sense do you mean? Well, I’m thinking of like regulating the streets, making sure that everybody has equal access, you know, those types of things we’re talking about, curb access pricing, basically taking the ownership of the streets they already have rather than kind of getting pushed around, I guess.

Anthony Townsend (39m 37s):
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s, it’s within reach for sure. Some of the things that are happening with mobility is a service. I think that it was kind of orchestration Right of plugging together, all these different systems behind the scenes, like share transit, you know, car share, whatever the modes, our, that are available, whoever the operator’s are, private sector, public sector, and making that totally invisible to the end user and essentially just presenting them with choices that nudge them and create a lot of value for them, but also nudge them in ways that, or, you know, socially optimal. I think those are the demonstration projects that are going to show people the benefits of expanding that authority and expanding that integration and that orchestration have all those different pieces of the city.

Anthony Townsend (40m 25s):
You know, every country, every jurisdiction is going to have its own weird historical anomalies that, or create roadblocks to that. And the U S has more than its fair share of them. But I think automation is going to, again, the financialization piece is going to create pressure for accountability there. You know, when us cities start seeing, say, you know, Berlin or Paris recouping investments or avoiding building roadways or generating revenues for transit, taking these steps or is getting reelected by putting these kinds of policies, I think that will certainly make the case.

Anthony Townsend (41m 6s):
And then when we see investors willing to come up and provide the capital to make things, start to move and get deployed, that’s when the resources we’ll be there to pull it off.

Jeff Wood (41m 17s):
Yeah. I think a lot of people had been inspired by, by Maier Hidalgo in Paris. Some of the other innovations that have happened Shelby and Berlin and things like that. We’ll see how effective they are. One of my last questions. I’m wondering what the response has been to the book.

Anthony Townsend (41m 29s):
I mean, so far it’s been, you know, enthusiastic, I think in a really weird time to launch a book.

Jeff Wood (41m 37s):
It was written before all this, and then you kinda come into it and it’s not the best because you can’t go out and promote it. You can’t go out and shake hands and tell people a little bit more about it so they can get ahold of it. But fortunately, that’s why we have podcasts. Okay.

Anthony Townsend (41m 50s):
I mean, I, I’m excited by this opportunity to share it. One of the things that was happiest about it was when the pandemic hit, I opened up the book, it was too late to change anything. And I looked at it and said, I wouldn’t change anything. Really. I think that the vision of the future that I had in there, particularly around the importance of focusing on freight is only more pronounced. The one thing that I think is slightly derailed is it sort of juggernaut of, of money going into automated vehicles. It seems to be sputtering. He was already starting to sputter as the people at Gardner consulting say automated driving had kind of hit the trough of disillusionment that had, this is like a shift curve, have tech adoption or tech HYP, the hype cycle.

Anthony Townsend (42m 37s):
It’s what they call it. But after the trough of disillusionment, which was after the initial excitement, that’s when the steady climb towards realization starts to happen. So the forecast in the book is that it’s not going to be a passenger vehicles for consumers, its going to be these hundreds of other specialized vehicles doing all kinds of, of things, primarily in cities. That’s a good thing for us. And then we should get engaged and we shouldn’t try to shape it and inspire it out and regulated. There’s a lot more upside for cities in there is downsides. You know, I S I still feel this, the case, the one weird thing is around the dispersal. I don’t think anybody could have predicted.

Anthony Townsend (43m 19s):
And it’s still, you know, pretty limited at, at least in the U S at this point until like New York in San Francisco, but the start of speed with which really large numbers of people wouldn’t flea the Citi, you know, I’m I’m of the school that a lot of them are going to come back. They were able to go quickly because they were highly mobile. And as soon as it’s a safe, there would be the first T to sweep back in. But like how much of the distributed worker culture remains and whether that sets up demand for a new round of like really kind of hyper sprawl. And I did conjecture about this in the, in the afterword to the book because the market would support it. If automated vehicles, you know, like a model T T E Tesla made it easy for people to live, you know, three hours out from Chicago and the Iowa corn fields.

Anthony Townsend (44m 7s):
I think that the market for satellite towns and those kinds of places would come together very quickly, you know, especially if a pandemic continues to hang over us. And when I was doing the initial radio to our, for the book, we have a lot of interviews with a small towns, you know, like all around the country and people we’re super excited about that idea. And so, you know, that’s, that’s kind of like the American twist on the book, you know, their, there might be like two futures for The Ghost Road right. One where robots doing all this great stuff to keep city’s going in the middle of the night while we all sleep. Another one where they’re just sort of trucking across the open plane, driving people to satellite. Town’s hundreds of miles in, into the hinterlands.

Jeff Wood (44m 48s):
I like the city. And I like, you know, escapes every once in a while to the country. I grew up in Texas out in the suburbs. And I do appreciate that, but I think, you know, you mentioned kind of being able to live somewhere far away and then yeah. What the cost of commuting would be. I don’t know if I could live far away, I could do it for like vacations and stuff. And I love it when I do it, but I don’t know if I could leave a city. It’s interesting to kind of think about what your decision might be. And I think it depends on the person really.

Anthony Townsend (45m 15s):
Yeah. I mean, the reason I put that part in the afterward was in a way to distance myself from a little bit was having a little bit of literary fun, but a little bit of literary licence there, like that, wasn’t a part of like the serious urban analysts. They’re that was a little bit of like my inner self, trying to wrestle with, like, what I know is right. And wanting to be in two places at once. And like, what does it mean that the technology may allow that to happen? Yeah. And you know, how do we make it clear to people what those trade offs, our, that are involved in those kinds of choices?

Jeff Wood (45m 50s):
I’ll say at the end of the book, and this is, I guess my last comment you said, you know, you all go out and write books, you all go out and do some of this stuff. I’m guessing that means no third book for you.

Anthony Townsend (45m 59s):
I’m thinking about writing a novel actually. Yeah. Now I’m going to, I’m going to write some more for sure. Okay.

Jeff Wood (46m 6s):
Oh, good. That’s that’s good to hear. I was worried that the, the books, the books are so good. I was worried that he’d stop, but that’s good. The book is called Ghost Road Beyond The Driverless Car by Anthony Townsend, you know, you can go to a bookshop.org in and get it, and it will give some of the proceeds to your local bookstore. Where can folks find you online,

Anthony Townsend (46m 23s):
A star city group that you S that’s my combined personal and consulting page that has like all my stuff from the last 20 years, as well as the book pages around there as well.

Jeff Wood (46m 34s):
You mentioned your Twitter account. Do you want folks to follow on and see what you’re talking about? Whether your, you know, kind of poking people a little bit.

Anthony Townsend (46m 41s):
Yes. It’s, it’s, it’s at Anthony Mobil, but it’s totally uncensored tap straight to my brain STEM. So that would be warrant. Okay.

Jeff Wood (46m 51s):
Fair enough. Fair enough. Well, Anthony thanks for joining us. So we really appreciate it. Thank you. Let’s do one. And thanks for joining us to Talking. Headways Podcast is a project dopey Overhead Wire on the web. If you ever had wire.com sign up for free trial The Overhead Wire Daley or a 14 year old daily city’s news list by clicking the link at the top, right of The Overhead wire.com. And please, please, please put the pod going to pitch on.com/the Overhead Wire many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, overcast Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. And you can always find a traditional [email protected]

Jeff Wood (47m 32s):
See you next time at Talking Headways.

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Top Links

of the past 48 hours

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free