"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  

Jane Jacobs

Heading Out West on I-80

From my last post you saw I went home last weekend to visit family. My husband and I make the six hour drive five to six times a year and have the route memorized down to which towns we stop in. We were able to leave by 10 am, after Minneapolis morning rush hours and before Omaha's evening rush hours. I say hours because it is no longer one annoying hour but about three. Leaving during these times can add almost forty-five minutes to our already long drive.

I'm fascinated each time I drive home by the different zones. There is the busy city of Minneapolis with freeways and interstates crossing like a maze, followed by the suburbs which are still packed with motorists. About an hour into the drive we finally lose many of the daily commuters and settle into a lull until we hit Des Moines. We again wind through the maze of intersecting interstates built to efficiently move as much traffic as fast as possible and are funneled onto I-80 heading west. This is the most desolate part of the journey. Western Iowa defines flyover state. Nothing but flat fields as far as the eye can see. When the mileage signs start showing Council Bluffs and then Omaha, hope is restored that the journey will be over soon. We make our way through the last busy metro area and coast the final 50 miles into Lincoln. Three states, three metro areas, dozens of small towns, and even more fields to look at all in under six hours.

Harbor Freight Warehouse, so large it takes 7 full seconds to drive past at 70 MPH 

Harbor Freight Warehouse, so large it takes 7 full seconds to drive past at 70 MPH 

Driving through each each zone I thought about what they would look like in the distant future. I have read and listened to numerous podcasts on the projected effects of disruptive technologies. The biggest disruptive technology that is already driving around our cities is autonomous vehicles. At some point in the future (a date no one agrees on) we will no longer need humans to drive cars. This will drastically change the way my commute back home looks and functions.

Starting at the beginning of my journey, the Minneapolis freeway system will likely be less congested with fewer lanes because autonomous vehicles need less space to operate without crashing into each other. Leaving the city, I may find more suburbs because it is easier for people to live further from work because they can ride in their autonomous vehicle while having breakfast, checking emails, etc.

What concerned me most was the small towns just off the highway that are sustained mainly by vehicles stopping for gas, food, and restrooms. Most of this will still be necessary, but how many stops can be eliminated altogether on a long road trip because you can stretch the stops longer with your high mileage vehicle? Will more towns turn into the ghost towns seen in Disney's Cars? Are we seeing a second wave of the same 1950s phenomenon of the Interstate Highway System destroying small town America?

Small town outside of Minneapolis with the locally famous Diamond Jo's casino

Small town outside of Minneapolis with the locally famous Diamond Jo's casino

Driving past all the semi's I pondered the future of their entire industry. Will truck drivers be necessary? With autonomous trucks driving nonstop to their destination, how will the increased frequency of deliveries change the consumer market? Goods will likely be cheaper, but what will that do to the economy? Will it make freight travel obsolete? What about transit? Will buses go out of style in favor of the autonomous vehicle? Surely not. There is an entire sector of our population that cannot afford a vehicle and rely on the public transit system. Public transit would be cheaper without having to pay drivers anymore. We are already starting to see this with driverless passenger trains.

Section of I-35 between Minneapolis and Des Moines filled with semi traffic

Section of I-35 between Minneapolis and Des Moines filled with semi traffic

It is both difficult and exciting to imagine a day when I hop into my autonomous vehicle and instead of setting my playlist before heading out, plugging in my destination and reclining my seat for the next six hours. Looking out the window and seeing a bunch of driverless cars will take some getting used to, but I believe I will see it in my lifetime. The question remains, what will it do to our city landscapes? 

Will trains become just entrance monuments, forgotten by future generations?

Will trains become just entrance monuments, forgotten by future generations?