A New Geography for Millennials

The Millennials are learning a new geography…thanks to technology.

Technology encouraged the Baby Boomers to settle in far-flung places: the suburbs exploded after WWII as cars became more affordable, ubiquitous, and reliable. Now, technology is on the move again, and so are people.

For the first time since the 1920s, growth in US cities outpaces growth outside of them. It is well documented that Millennials are opting to live in urban areas over the suburbs and rural communities. According to Nielsen polling, sixty-two percent of Millennials prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices.  

TECHNOLOGY AT THE HEART

Technology is at the heart of these changing tastes. The desirability of car travel has tarnished as both commute trips and errands become long and stressful. Car trips are also energy intensive. Meanwhile, the technology of cyberspace is growing…and to coin a cliché, coming soon to a theatre near you. Cyberspace brings the contrasting trends to go big and to go small, simultaneously. The “big” is Urban. The small is situated in neighborhood Starbuck’s like places.  In addition to serving up coffee, Starbucks has created spaces where people can get out and co-mingle, WiFi enabled.  The “Starbucks Effect” satisfies a basic need for individuals to share a public space. Shades of sociability are gained for the price (and calories) of a frappucino.

GO BIG…GO SMALL… SIMULTANEOUSLY

The Starbucks Effects matters: many digital workers work as independent contractors, doing things like updating websites, writing code, and tweeking their online pages and identities. Many times the work will involve creating a buzz and interaction, but through the impersonal, and silent channels of the Internet.  Cyberworkers need to find outside environments that are proximate, but populated with diverse ideas and people.

Meanwhile, for businesses that employ these digital workers, the urban environment seems to be more productive for them than the office-parks and suburbs of the twentieth century. They are able to recruit younger, better trained workers, who like the city (a tautology). Urban settings are also said to foster agglomeration effects, and the speed of innovation. Urban economists who study modern trends say that density facilitates contact between smart people and fosters innovation. An interesting data point comes from the physicists Bettencourt and West and cited in the NYT.  When the population of a city doubles, there is an increase of 15 to 20 percent in human interaction. That might explain why innovations grow exponentially, and why our personal social networks become more valuable and useful when they are urban based.

 

WHERE THE HIGHWAYS WENT AND WROUGHT

One of the ironies of the past generation is that the passion for the car, a twentieth century invention, led U.S. cities, at least temporarily, to unravel and become economically and socially dim.  Inner city areas were blighted as the Interstate Highway network segmented and cut residential blocks. Jane Jacobs, the planner, was an advocate for the preservation of small-scale neighborhoods, at the expense of efficient highways. Her point was that the neighborhoods facilitated the free flow of information between city residents and that these exchanges were essential human needs. When the highways came, the sociability left.

Starbucks may have been one of the first corporate entities to identify this shortcoming and capitalize upon it by selling friendly Wifi space, along with a frappucino. Their undoing may be Millennial clients who favor more “local” outfits, such as Blue Bottle Coffee. But, then, the preference for Blue Bottle might give way to the next shop, one opened by a more local, next-door entrepreneur/owner. The point is that Millennials are trying to forge a sense of place and connectivity, and they are going to reach this place in a manner quite unlike their parents- it is not in the car.

The Autonomous Car: Double Blessing for Boomers

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The Autonomous Car will be a double blessing for Baby Boomers, the generation that is currently between ages 51 and 69.

Transportation experts know that the autonomous car is well suited to aging Baby Boomers, because it will keep them mobile, and enable them to travel- even when their health or eyesight fail. This is an essential problem, since even today 21 percent of the population over 65 does not drive.

The double blessing is more subtle. As people age, they have basic needs to get outdoors, to exercise, amble safely, and stay on their feet.  Older American tourists often comment that they walk extensively when they travel abroad, but have difficulty continuing the habit at home.  

MAKING STREETS SAFER..FOR PEDS

Here is where the autonomous car will help- by making the streets safer for all users, not only for drivers, but also for pedestrians and mobility devices, like the street legal scooter. Traffic engineers seem to design streets with the reaction times of an average 40 year old in mind. But, with an aging population, there are new baselines for the autonomous car to accommodate.

For example, an elderly person may require more time to cross a busy street. The elderly person may be tired, slow on their feet or riding a scooter.  At a busy intersection they may find the standard 15 or 30 second pedestrian walk cycle to be daunting. So, through no faulty of their own, they are stranded in the intersection when the light turns green. A car operated by a human driver will honk, swerve and hopefully, slide to a stop. The autonomous car will detect a pedestrian (age neutral) in the intersection and not move.

FIRST MILE/LAST MILE

The autonomous car accommodates this. Another need that comes with age is  “first mile/last mile” assisted travel. Older pedestrians may have the best intentions to get out, walk about, and keep mobile but first they need to get to a safe place… with sidewalks. Many Boomers, who plan to age-in-place live in modern suburbs that lack sidewalks, walkable paths or trails. They must first travel by car to reach a safe place to exercise. But what if they are not capable or able drivers? The autonomous car will help them cover the “first mile” and bring them to the walking track.

STREET LEGAL VEHICLES AND THE DARK

There is a third transportation baseline. A growing number of users, mostly older,  employ street legal electric scooters, electric driven wheelchairs, and in the future “Uni-Cub/Honda” like robots. Operators of these devices, riding on public streets, know how dangerous it is for them to co-mingle with bigger vehicles. In the daytime their mobility vehicles are barely registered by regular drivers, and at night they seem to be invisible. The NHTSA (see link below) reports that 72 percent of pedestrian fatalities take place when it is dark outside. The autonomous car will make mobility safer for riders of scooters and wheelchairs. It will detect them in all lighting conditions, and faster than human-drivers.

In the current configuration of sidewalks and city streets, older pedestrians face many risks. The risks come from driver’s who do not obey speed limits, drivers distracted by phones and dashboards, and simply human error.  The National Highway Traffic Safety  Administration  (NHTSA) reports that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, human error is the critical cause. Vehicle related factors are the critical reason in only 2 percent. They report that in 2014 there were 4,844 pedestrian deaths, and 66,000 injured.  On average, a pedestrian was killed every 2 hours and injured every 8 minutes in traffic crashes. (Note: across all age groups). Two final numbers: Nineteen percent of the pedestrian fatalities in 2013, and an estimated 10 percent of those injured were people 65 and older.

THE DIFFUSION CURVE.. SAFE, THEN SAFER!

The autonomous car has a diffusion curve of some import. As more of these vehicles substitute for conventional cars, there will be fewer accidents between cars, and reduced pedestrian/biker/scooter collisions. Then, at some “tipping point” when autonomous cars outnumber conventional vehicles, the safety factor will grow exponentially as the rules of the road change. The results could lead to lower speed limits, reduced travel lanes, safer curb cuts, and the like. Streets will be less dangerous and more functional for both cars and people. Hence the double blessing.

This is only good news to an aging Baby Boomer population. Boomers are known as a  generation that continually reinvents itself and “rethinking mobility” can be their last and greatest reinvention. There is no reason to expect Boomers tol remain wedded to cars with steering wheels, when an autonomous car promises to extend the longevity of their “vehicle years.”  Even more importantly, the autonomous car will extend the longevity of their “non-vehicle years” and help them get out and about as pedestrians.