Technology and Population Density Trends

A bit of a rambling, conversational piece today.

Amara’s Law states-

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run, and underestimate the effect in the long run.

We declare that a technology changes everything, realize that entrenched patterns/behaviors and small hangups limit broad adoption. We discount it as over-hyped and not as significant as expected. It quietly takes over and changes the very foundations of society and our lives.

Recently I was pondering what electric cars and self-driving cars would do to population density. The former — using mechanically simpler vehicles with a much less expensive energy source — will significantly reduce the cost of driving as it achieves the economy of scale, while the latter will reduce the inconvenience of driving, commuting in particular.

Self-driving cars will not only allow us to do other things during the ride, it will significantly increase the capacity of our roads to handle traffic by reducing human error and inefficiencies.

Intuitively, at least to me, these changes will propagate lower density living. That home that previously would have been an expensive, three-hour commute becomes a relaxing period to watch a Netflix series or catch up on emails.

Considering the probable social change of self-driving EVs led me to consider the changes over the past several decades. In Canada, as an example, lower density areas of the country — the Atlantic provinces, rural areas, small towns and villages — are hollowing out. The high density areas, such as the Golden Horseshoe around Toronto, is a magnetic draw for all of Canada and continues growing at a blistering pace.

Even if a home in the Toronto area costs 5x the price for a given set of amenities, and even if a hypothetical person might prefer lower density, many forces still draw them in.

Which is strange, in a way. I grew up in a small city and seemed to be completely isolated from the larger world. Calling a relative 20 minutes down the road necessitated long distance. My town had no computer store, a mediocre BBS, few channels on television, no radio station, etc. There were few resources for learning.

I was wide eyed at the options available in the big city.

Yet today we live in a world where that same small town has inexpensive 100Mbps internet, and can communicate with anyone over the globe in an instant. Where you can order just about anything and have it the next day, or even the same day. Every form of entertainment is available. Every resource and learning tool is a couple of clicks away (aside — education is one area that has yet to see the coming change from the new world). Few of the benefits of the density are missing.

But those same changes led to centralization, and a hollowing out of most of the better jobs, entailing the workforce having to follow.

We centralized government and administration, pulling the school boards and government offices, banks, etc, out of those small towns in the quest for efficiency, moving up the density ladder. Those five small villages amalgamated to a single board, that then got pulled into a larger board in the city an hour up the road, etc. Connectivity means that management for the few remaining auspices of structure can be at a far flung location.

Every medical specialty was moved to larger centers as the ownership of cars became prevalent, and long drives were accepted. Seeing a pediatrician 200km away becomes a simple norm. Service and even retailing gets centralized to some unknown place elsewhere on the globe.

Everything centralizes. Because it can.

Most decent jobs require a move to density. The same forces that gave the convenience of the city in far flung locations also relegated it to being essentially a retirement home.

Reconsidering the probable change of EVs and self-driving cars will likely accelerate that migration.