Solving Cities

Why Apple's ascension to world's largest company is great for cities

Why Apple's ascension to world's largest company is great for cities

Posting in Cities

Is there any more potent a symbol of our civilization's shift away from oil dependency and sprawl than a mobile devices company growing larger than the world's largest oil company?

It finally happened: If only briefly, Apple has surpassed Exxon Mobil as the world's largest company. The fact that a firm that produces mobile devices is now more valuable than an oil company is the most powerful repudiation of the sprawling, exurban, oil-dependent old economy I can think of.

It's not a stretch to understand why: mobile devices are uniquely suited to the urban environment. They are such powerful connectors of people that they are literally replacing their need and desire for cars.

As Steve Pendleton pointed out in a New Statesman piece about Britain reaching "peak cars":

But young people aren't simply swapping cars for buses or bikes; they are choosing to own and use other technology instead, such as smartphones and tablet computers.

It's not merely that the two trade off economically; both, after all, can be prohibitively expensive. It's that young people are so addicted to their mobile devices and always-on connectivity that they would sooner give up driving.

Pendleton continues:

Significantly, the use of these technologies while driving is not only against UK law, but also difficult. A recent survey of college students in Colorado (where sending messages from smartphones while driving is not illegal) found that while 75 per cent of users said they often used their phones while travelling by bus, train or as a passenger in a car, only 10 per cent of them said they did so while driving a car.

Now think about where mass transit works best -- where young people, retirees and even families are able to simply abolish their use of cars. Especially in the U.S., nowhere else but cities is this even possible.

As young people turn away from cars -- a phenomenon so powerful that it has had the marketing departments of car companies running scared for years -- they are left with no other option than mass transit, and that means increased density, urbanism, walkability and everything else required to bring our way of life in line with planetary boundaries.

Millennials aren't just fleeing the automobile; they're also explicitly fleeing McMansions and the suburbs. As S. Mitra Kalita and Robbie Whelan reported in the Wall Street Journal:

Gen Y housing preferences are the subject of at least two panels at this week’s convention. A key finding: They want to walk everywhere. Surveys show that 13% carpool to work, while 7% walk, said Melina Duggal, a principal with Orlando-based real estate adviser RCLCO. A whopping 88% want to be in an urban setting, but since cities themselves can be so expensive, places with shopping, dining and transit such as Bethesda and Arlington in the Washington suburbs will do just fine.

The ascension of Apple, a company in the vanguard of firms that make devices you don't need until you have one and become hopelessly addicted, literally represents a wealth transfer from the old economy -- cars, oil, long commutes -- to a new one built on a desire to capitalize on virtual connectivity by recapitulating it in the real world. The mechanism of this wealth transfer are consumers themselves, who are making decisions every day to buy an iPad instead of a new car, or to move closer to work so that they don't have to drive at all.

And before you write this off as the frivolity of youth -- silly kids, they like Facebook more than having a big back yard! -- it's worth recognizing that the ability to maintain our always-on connectivity, and to be close enough to the job opportunities represented by America's urban cores, constitutes a real competitive advantage.

Experts have been asserting that the suburbs are America's new slums for some time, and Apple v. Exxon is just one more data point in this accelerating trend. Apple and all of its competitor's products are both conducive to and uniquely enabled by city living. Meanwhile, what does Exxon represent? Commuting an hour each way so you can be underwater on your mortgage, have a two-car garage and enslave yourself to lawn care? Who's aspiring to that?

Illustration: Thierry Ehrmann

[via 9to5 Mac]

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure