As robots begin to move goods and people from place to place, urban land might become more valuable.
Amazon.com has announced that it is testing package delivery by drones — small, unmanned helicopters that would bring a purchase from Amazon’s fulfillment center to the customer’s front porch. Driverless cars are being developed to help move goods and people from place to place.
“Location, location, location” is the saying in real estate: a property’s value is determined primarily by its location. An apartment in central Illinois might be worth 20 times as much in Manhattan, because a Manhattan apartment gives its resident access to many more goods, activities and high-paying jobs.
This is not to say that urban living is always the best, or that all urban properties are created equal. Locations involve trade-offs, and rural areas offer amenities that big cities cannot. But for centuries, real estate markets have shown that people and businesses are willing to pay more for urban properties.
As technology helps with moving goods and people more cheaply, it might seem that urban real estate would give up some of its price premium because distance becomes less of an obstacle to economic transactions. Wouldn’t a driverless car cause some workers to sell their Manhattan apartments and commute to their jobs from more spacious homes in the suburbs or even rural New York State?
But don’t forget that many people and businesses currently avoid urban areas because of the monthly expense of owning or renting urban property. New technologies might allow them to use urban properties on a part-time basis, or use less urban property to accomplish the same tasks, which would make urban property more valuable.
A restaurant may need less refrigeration and storage space because it takes multiple food deliveries per day. Grocery stores may save on shelf space by having a greater fraction of their items delivered directly to customers without being shelved in the store. Households may opt for less storage space or parking, for example — and more room for people — when they can get items and transportation cheaply and on time.
For every Manhattan resident who leaves his apartment for the suburbs, there could be many others for whom technology induces them to use a Manhattan property on a part-time basis.
New technologies are more likely to emerge in urban areas, because that’s where the innovators expect to find the most customers. Amazon said that it planned to start its drone service in urban areas, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the first commercial uses of driverless cars were in big cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Thus, while cities already give their residents access to more goods and services, technology may further shift that advantage and thereby increase urban property values.