What is better for small shopping trips: Amazon’s drones versus walkable neighborhoods

Delivering in the final mile is a problem. So what is better in combatting this issue: Amazon using drones or walkable neighborhoods?

“You have the technology that can help the most difficult part of delivery: The last-mile problem. You have a lightweight package going to a single destination. You cannot aggregate packages. It’s still way too complicated and expensive. It’s very energy inefficient,” Raptopoulous sad. “UAVs or drones deal with the problem of doing this very efficiently with extremely low cost and high reliability. It’s the best answer to the problem. The ratio of your vehicle to your payload is very low.”

Part of the argument is that our current last-mile delivery system can seem kind of ridiculous, at least from an energy efficiency point of view.

As Raptopoulous put it: “In the future, we think it’s going to make more sense to have a bottle of milk delivered to your house from Whole Foods rather than get in your car and drive two tons of metal on a congested road to go get it.”

Of course, we could also build walkable neighborhoods that don’t require driving as often as we do, but walkability requires density—and even places like San Francisco sometimes balk at the sorts of buildings that entails. And we’ve got a lot of low-density infrastructure in place that isn’t going away anytime soon.

The conclusion here seems to be that building walkable neighborhoods would be a good solution but untenable in lots of places because many Americans don’t want that kind of density. I suspect New Urbanists and others would argue with that conclusion though adding density to urban and suburban neighborhoods does tend to bring out NIMBY responses.

So perhaps we could see these drones or cars as concessions to what Americans want: more privacy in their residences, more space, and to find technological solutions to get around the effect these kinds of neighborhoods produce. As the article notes, having lots of flying and landing drones could lead to problems but this might be preferable to asking people to live in different kinds of places.

Argument: boost America’s foreign policy by promoting walkable communities at home

Patrick Doherty argues that promoting and developing walkable urbanism at home can boost American foreign policy abroad:

This is the lesson, Doherty says, we should take from that era: “The real key to American strategic success in the 20th century – both during World War II and the Cold War – was not the military stuff. The key was that we understood how to let our economic engine do the heavy lifting.”

It’s clear today, though, that suburbia can no longer do this for us. The children of baby boomers are less interested in living their parents’ lifestyle. And baby boomers themselves are increasingly rejecting it, wary of a choice between isolated houses and nursing homes. If anything, the development model of suburbia now seems to be weakening our economy instead of propping it up. Without eternal new development, the infrastructure costs of existing subdivisions are becoming clearer. And as demand shifts back toward urban centers, we’re left with a dramatic oversupply of another era’s housing (which we continued to build long after the Cold War ended).

So what replaces suburbia as the engine of our economy?

“There’s no good growth story,” Doherty says. Or, at least, that’s how many investors and CFOs feel. But he believes an answer does exist among findings we’ve covered before from real estate theorist Christopher Leinberger: it’s in the rising demand for walkable urbanism.

The connection between foreign policy and suburban development is a fascinating one: economic strength, driven in the past by suburban growth and possibly in the future by walkable development, leads to a stronger foreign policy posture. But, this summary doesn’t connect the dots enough for me. Is there enough demand to make a big switch from suburbs to walkable urbanism? Where will the money come from – as the article notes, the suburbs were subsidized with federal dollars so will walkable urbanism receive similar funding? Given the demand and the money, would all of this be enough to drive the American economy in a new direction? It sounds like Doherty would argue walkable urbanism provides some bonuses compared to other kinds of development (can reduce dependence on oil, it is greener, etc.) but wouldn’t any big trend in development help the American economy and foreign policy?

I’m thinking this could also be an updated critique of the American suburbs: not only are they bad for residents but they hurt American foreign policy. Going further, if we continue with suburban development, America will decline relative to other countries.

An argument for moving beyond cities/suburbs to walkable/unwalkable areas

A demographer makes an argument for moving beyond comparing cities and suburbs to looking at walkable and unwalkable areas which are not necessarily concentrated in either cities or suburbs:

Unfortunately, the census shines the light on the terms “city” and “suburb”–neither of which are the keys to understanding today’s built environment.

Core cities are comprised of pedestrian-oriented urban places, how Jerry Seinfeld lived, but they also include auto-centric suburban places, like the San Fernando Valley in the city of Los Angeles or the Palisades in the District of Columbia. Likewise, the suburbs of those core cities include classic subdivisions and McMansions, like the home of Tony Soprano, but they also include booming places like Old Town Pasadena, Reston Town Center near Dulles Airport outside D.C., and revitalized Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan.

The issue is where are walkable urban places being built, and they are being built in both central cities and the suburbs surrounding them. My 2007 survey of the walkable urban places in the top 30 metros showed 50 percent of them were in central cities and 50 percent were in the suburbs. In the metro area with the most walkable urban places, the Washington region, 70 percent of the walkable urban places were in the suburbs. These included Bethesda and Silver Spring in suburban Montgomery County, nine places in suburban Arlington County (like Ballston and Crystal City), and the newly built Washington Harbor in suburban Prince George’s County.

I haven’t looked at this 2007 survey data but it sounds interesting. Is there an easy way to demarcate walkable vs. unwalkable areas through publicly available data? While the Census definitions of and boundaries between cities and suburbs might be frustrating, the data is easy to understand and available to all.

At the same time, this argument is broader: it is about comparing denser versus less dense areas. Walkable areas work because residents can easily walk to or access essential needs like grocery stores, public spaces, eateries, and more. At stake here is whether less dense urban areas, like the north side of Chicago with its many single-family homes, are more similar to suburban areas (which range from inner-ring suburbs to very sparse communities on the suburban fringe) or to more central districts like the Chicago Loop.

I would think that suburban areas are more similar to each other in design and culture than to large portions of large cities. But if more suburban areas become more dense (and this may be what Americans want) and the importance of the core of metropolitan areas decline, perhaps this will change.

New Urbanist plans for Waco, Texas

New Urbanist ideas about mixed-use neighborhoods are often appealing to municipalities: they suggest one can design and produce vibrant, diverse, and walkable communities. Waco, Texas, which according to a member of the Greater Waco Chamber is perceived by many as “Texas’ largest bathroom break,” has hired a firm to develop such plans.

The goals of the city sound ambitious:

Waco’s plan is bold for a city that’s been without a vibrant downtown for about half a century, much of it destroyed by a 1953 tornado. The city wants half the growth projected by 2050 to locate downtown and have 100,000 people living there…

The consensus: develop the banks of the Brazos River, attract the young and empty-nesters from Baylor University’s growing student body and faculty, and highlight tourist attractions (Waco Mammoth Site archeological dig, Dr Pepper Museum and replica of the drugstore where the soft drink was invented, an 1870 suspension bridge over the Brazos, Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum).

If they build it, will people come to downtown Waco?

h/t The Infrastructurist