Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

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Self-Driving Cars


Often when I discuss my alternative transportation with people, I get a similar response: “what about self-driving cars?”  At one level, I know people are often just making conversation, but it strikes me as funny that the first thing they think of as an “answer” for problems caused by the automobile is simply substituting a different kind of automobile, as if that makes a difference.  Part of this is an overriding faith in technology to solve problems created by, well, technology.  Part, however, is an inability (or unwillingness) to think in terms beyond the status quo.

At a dinner a couple of years ago, one husband of a colleague of mine, an architect in a prominent L.A. firm, proceeded to instruct me how driverless cars would mean “you people” (meaning bicyclists) “won’t need bike lanes anymore.”  He predicted self-driving cars would be universal within five years and the safety of people on bikes and people on foot wouldn’t be threatened by dangerous or distracted drivers.  The techno-utopia was right around the corner.  Leaving aside for a moment the absurdity of the claim that fully autonomous vehicles will become universal any time in the near future (hybrids, which are a much smaller technological leap, have been widely available for over 15 years, but currently make up less than 5% market share in the U.S.), the subtext of his comment struck me as a way of saying that “you people” (bicyclists) should stop complaining about bike lanes, already.  You’re not going to need them and, besides, roads are made for cars.

More recently, a colleague who professes to be an environmentalist asked me what I thought of self-driving cars.  I told him about the possibilities as well as the drawbacks and when I gently suggested that he might occasionally consider taking transit, he balked.  “I don’t like transit,” he flatly told me.

Even some bicycling advocates have been bitten by the driverless car bug.  A recent exchange on Twitter is instructive:

My bike advocate friends need not worry that they’ll have to “push for self-driving cars.”  What historian Peter Norton calls Motordom (the complex of automobile interests), now combined with the tech industry, is already strongly pushing for it.  Bike advocacy organizations, already stretched thin, should not waste precious resources doing the work of the car companies for them.  Many of my fellow citizens are slavishly ready to follow the pied piper that will allow them to continue their car-dependent lifestyle.  Finally, the promised land where we can all sit in our individual metal boxes and text to our hearts’ content.  Lord knows, they don’t need a “push” from bike advocates.

Such comments, and they’re part of the media discourse on alternative transportation, too, are a dead giveaway that the design of cities around the automobile has made us not only geographically but psychologically dependent on them.  The mere thought of living without a car sends many people into a panic.  I’m reminded of the character in one of James Howard Kunstler’s post-apocalyptic, post-oil, post-car novels who is so despondent about not being able to drive that he sits in his car in the driveway every day and pretends to drive.  One day, unable to cope with the thought of life without his beloved car, he blows his brains out in the driver’s seat.  As a commentary on many Americans’ abject psychological dependence on the car culture, Kunstler is spot on.

Last weekend, transportation planner Gabe Klein spoke at UCLA and was later interviewed about self-driving cars by the L.A. Times.  Like many people, Klein thinks that self-driving cars are coming—maybe not in 5 years, but eventually.  However, unlike most people, Klein does not view them as a panacea for our transportation woes.  So while the Times headline writer breathlessly touted driverless vehicles as “the future of LA transportation,” Klein was far more circumspect in his interview.

When asked to assess LA’s transportation system, Klein first and foremost bemoaned the way we’ve replaced LA’s transit system with the car culture, calling it a “complete planning failure”:

Look at the original rail network in Los Angeles. It was robust. But during the past 70 years, there has been a complete disinvestment in public transit until recently. When automobiles came in, streetcars became less desirable. On the back end, we are paying the price today. There’s been a complete planning failure. Sprawl does not work. There is also induced demand. That means you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. New highway lanes just fill up.

Asked if there was nothing we can do to “defeat this gridlock,” Klein responded that any future transportation system—including one that involved driverless cars—must invest in transit and reduce car usage:

The single-occupancy car is not good. Do we want to keep buying the cow, when what we really want is the milk? We need to develop a car-light lifestyle. Uber, Lyft, driverless vehicles, robo taxis are steps in that direction. Even Bill Ford Jr. will tell you that the single-occupancy car is not the future.

When asked what the role of driverless cars should be, Klein emphasized “widespread car-sharing” driverless car rentals, taxis, and such.  What he did not say is that everyone should own one and assume we’ll continue our same commuting habits.  “There could be a dystopian future,” he pointedly noted, “if we sell everyone an autonomous vehicle and not reduce the number of cars on the road.”

How to reduce the number of cars on the road?  “Increase the cost and inconvenience of owning and operating a car,” mainly by making drivers pay for all the externalized costs their cars create.  Instead make cities more compact, more walkable and bikeable.  Invest in “expanded transit systems and more compact development that brings homes, workplaces, shopping areas and recreational opportunities closer together.”

Here’s the key thing about self-driving cars: they must be seen as a bridge to a car light or car free life, not a continuation of business as usual.  Some of the most prominent advocates of driverless cars, such as Sebastian Thrun, one of the developers of the Google Car, has said that he envisions self-driving cars “doubling or tripling” the number of cars on the road, because, presumably, they’ll be able to drive closer to one another.  Others have envisioned a looming “congestion disaster,” as one might predict using driverless (and passenger less) cars to, say, run errands while their owners are at work.  How walkable or bikeable would such streets be?  How livable would such cities be? Where would we find space to park all of them?  Would they exacerbate the tendency of cities to sprawl outward, since owners would be free to spend their longer commute time reading, texting, or surfing the web?

The problems of cars involve a whole range of land use and space issues, not only what comes out of the tailpipe, or the danger they pose on the roads, or the enormous waste of resources they represent, it is that they are space hogs whose inevitable result is unsustainable sprawl and the evisceration of social life in the city.  Having everyone move about sitting inside his/her own climate-controlled metal box is a fundamentally antisocial means of mobility.  It’s one of the key reasons drivers become selfish, dangerous, and often rude “owners” of erstwhile public road space.  The whole discussion of driverless cars ignores the question of transportation equity.  That is to say, is mobility a right, or is it a privilege reserved for those who can pay for the private box in which to move about?

One cannot design streets and cities for cars and for people at the same time.  Prioritize one or the other and design accordingly.  Switching to self-driving cars will not resolve this fundamental conflict.  Indeed, it may exacerbate it.  The answer to sprawl and eviscerated cities is not driverless cars, it is transit and walkable, bikeable communities.  Unfortunately, for many, the message is slow to catch on.

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