SPUR Talk: Gabe Klein on Technology and Past and Future Cities

Transportation guru Gabe Klein presents to an audience at SPUR in Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog.
Transportation guru Gabe Klein presents to an audience at SPUR in Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog.

Gabe Klein, entrepreneur, writer and former head of transportation for Chicago and Washington DC, spoke yesterday afternoon at the Oakland office of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) about how technology can be guided to shape the future of our cities.

He put up a slide with a chilling number on it: 1.24 million–the number of people killed in car wrecks every year globally. That number will reach 3.6 million by 2030, as driving becomes more prevalent in the developing world. He wondered why people tolerate so much carnage. “We [the US] lost 35,000 people on the road last year–an increase of 10 percent because gas was cheap and people were driving more.”

Sadly, those alarming numbers don’t even account for deaths from automobile pollution or rising sea levels and other effects of global warming. “The transportation sector is spewing out more [greenhouse gas emissions] than everything else,” Klein said. Global warming “…is man made. We’re the only country with people who think it’s not real; convenient if you’re a Koch Brother, but not for the rest of us,” he quipped.

Transportation guru Gabe Klein presents to an audience at SPUR in Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog.
Klein talked about the global carnage caused by the automobile at SPUR in Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog.

Autonomous cars, in theory, should be safer. But before looking at purely technological fixes, he said it’s imperative to dissuade rapidly developing countries from making the same mistakes. “We have an incredible opportunity to make better decisions and better choices to serve people in a different way. City states such as Singapore have not made as much investment in highways,” he pointed out. It’s also important, he said, to look at how cities formed before the advent of the automobile. “Cities have been around for ten thousand years…people want to be 10 minutes from their services, whether they walk, ride a horse [in a previous century] or ride a bike,” he said.

In fact, he seemed to caution that old, low-tech solutions can still work to make a safe urban environment, once one understands the choices that led to today’s dangerous, auto-centric cities. “Streetcars were the primary way neighborhoods were connected,” he said, showing a slide of a streetcar stuck in traffic in a post-war city. “Transit was pretty fast until it was stuck behind cars.” Which drove people away from streetcars, he explained, and, with the construction of freeways through downtowns, away from downtown areas as well. “We forced people to buy cars,” he said. “Cars are not an asset you want to invest in, they are a depreciating asset…as we sold people more cars, there was a direct correlation to debt.”

Fortunately, Klein points out that the reasons for car ownership are fading; smart phones and the sharing economy are key. “Bike sharing,” he said, “is fascinating–shows you don’t always need the super complex fix.” But he cautions that there’s a danger of getting overly obsessed with tech, especially with driverless cars, that could reboot an auto-centric paradigm of wide roads and sprawl. “The Libertarian bent in Silicon Valley and autonomous vehicles has to fit in the city that we want,” he said. “The sprawling 1950s model just doesn’t work; but what if you combine it [autonomous cars] with newer business models like Zip car, and newer services like Lyft?”

In this sense, he echoed sentiments of Professor Jason Henderson, who, in an editorial for Streetsblog, warned that driverless cars could end up increasing sprawl.

However, Klein warns that urban planners must not reject autonomous cars, because to do so would be futile: they are coming. To illustrate, he showed the now-infamous video of a Tesla driver asleep at the wheel, while its “autopilot” feature does the driving.

He suggested that government officials and advocates for livable streets need to get “in front” of the technology, to shape how autonomous vehicles are used. For example, he wants government agencies to work on integrating driverless taxis so they ferry people to transportation nodes. “We’ve got to get our act together and do it quickly,” he said of cities. We need to “figure out rules and how to make it work together for the greater good.” He also hopes “autonomous” vehicles will mean lightweight, electric cars and small buses, instead of heavy, conventional, highway-type vehicles. “I hope people wake up and realize they don’t need a 7,000 pound Tesla.”

He also praised the ability of autonomous cars to free up space from parking; he talked about a developer who designed a parking structure so that it can be re-arranged in the future into office space. He said he wants to see more developers anticipating that change.

“I’m trying to get people who are progressive to not be anti-tech,” he said. “We have to shape this change or it will run us over.”

Autonomous vehicles can be great for livable cities, if this is what one means by the term. Image from Klein's presentation.
Autonomous vehicles can be great for livable cities, depending what one means by the term. Image from Klein’s presentation.

  • JustJake

    Autonomous cars are more of a handoff from use of existing non-autonomous cars. It doesn’t represent a moment of urban or societal redesign. The article puts forth “He suggested that government officials and advocates for livable streets need to get “in front” of the technology, to shape how autonomous vehicles are used.”. This idea that these type of groups should get “in front” of this technology seems idealistic and not realistic. As SPUR is known to be.

  • Wells

    The Autonomous Self-driving Clown Car Bandwagon riders doing their best to legitimate science fiction daydreams and Hollywood CG movie ratings. I draw the line at some related tech becoming useful – emergency braking of course, but also routine ‘speed limits’ (drivers may reduce speed but not exceed speed limit). Driverless operation will never be truly safe nor solve problems cars impose upon other fundamental modes of urban/suburban travel -transit, walking, bicycling- nor traffic congestion which is predicted to become worse if Autonomous tech were possible, (it isn’t).

  • JustJake

    Exactly. Same nonsense as the arrival of high speed rail, the supposed savior for transit to LA. Comedic.

  • Jame

    I really don’t like autonomous cars. I just read a sci-fi book where a nefarious character re-routed the autonomous car to put the heroine in danger. It is not going to take long for “hackers” to make the car go where they want. Everyone is already broadcasting their location on Pokemon Go. I am sure there are enough security loopholes to overtake the controls.

    But if we have to do it, transit and taxis should be a first step.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    First of all, all the safety and efficiency savings will not happen until all vehicles are autonomous and connected to a grid.

    But here is Streetsblog and other groups need to get in front of it.

    Municipalities will have to choose between efficiency and liveable communities.

    Efficiency means no traffic signals,arterials with freeway speeds, no cyclists or pedestrians. Yes my commute from Torrance to Hollywood (21 miles) will take only 25 minutes, but then I cannot ride my bike or walk to the store.

    Livable communities means keeping traffic signals in place for pedestrians and allowing cyclists to plug into the grid and be an equal road user. This means my hour-plus commute home may be shorted to 45 minutes. But it also means I can ride my bike in the middle of the general travel lane without harassment and close passes.

    Also in the latter, it means easy routing to pass pedestrian only zones. Imagine Hollywood Blvd as a pedestrian only street similar to Third Street Promenade. Imagine the Sunset Strip or West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Blvd with 15 mph computer controlled speed limits. Right now I get in my car, set my destination into a GPS and am told within 3 minutes my estimated arrival time. Now imagine a world where I ride in a car (instead of drive a car), where GPS is accurate to within one minute. I will not care about the route it takes or how many cyclists I have to pass as long as I get to my destination when predicted. Now imagine how stress free this will be. I can spend my 45 minutes reading a book, taking a nap, watching Netflix, or doing work.

    We have a chance to turn our cities into livable communities and still have solo occupied vehicles. But instead of thousands of drivers operating with only their best interests in mind, the SOV’s become part of the greater commuter network. In essence we all become part of mass transit.

  • JustJake

    We already have “livable communities”. What you are likely referring to, is a different ideal vision of what defines livable. Which implies your value system vs another persons. This is where city/state/county government needs to draw the line and cease to try and legislate lifestyles.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    No, I am looking at the future. Follow the money, Autonomous Vehicles will happen.

    But the choice on how they are implemented is ours.

    This is Streetsblog SF. So imagine two worlds.

    The first has turned Van Ness and Lombard into 70+ mph through ways. No ped crossing or bike riding. But for motorists, it as if the Central Freeway was build…

    The other world still has crosswalks across Van Ness and Lombard. Cyclists can use the streets. And maybe Market and Embarcardero have been turned into pedestrian zones.

    What world do you want? The choice is yours. Just do not be upset when the choice is made without you due to lack of foresight.

  • The city/state/county governments should provide credible lifestyle options. Let’s start with creating a effective regional transportation network and then build upon that to reduce traffic congestion, promote transit-oriented development instead of sprawl, and improve the quality of life and getting around the region for as many people as possible. Let’s make livable communities even more livable.

  • JustJake

    I stopped at “effective regional transportation network”. Been waiting for that for decades. Until then, how about governments stay away from quality of life interpretations?

  • “Fortunately, Klein points out that the reasons for car ownership are
    fading; smart phones and the sharing economy are key. “Bike sharing,” he
    said, “is fascinating–shows you don’t always need the super complex
    fix.”

    Who needs a robust transit system when I have an iPhone and occasionally rent a Zipcar? Yeah, right.

    “The sprawling 1950s model just doesn’t work; but what
    if you combine it [autonomous cars] with newer business models like Zip
    car, and newer services like Lyft?”

    Lyft/Uber are more of a problem than a solution to the 50s sprawl mentality which Klein doesn’t necessarily want to change. Rather, he wants to work with a model that has proven itself to be detrimental to livable communities. Keep building those housing developments and strip malls, but feel rest assured that Zip car and Lyft are there to get you to your destination.

  • JustJake

    I’ll take door #3, Bob. Obviously. Let’s not dictate the paths/choices.

  • Carol Johnson

    <<o. ✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤:::::::!bc701p:….,…

  • Wells

    Actually, any speed electric passenger-rail service is worth the money. Those who want HSR least – automobile-related business interests, of course. Uber & Lyft are just more taxi traffic. Traffic has gotten insane.
    The HSR is being mismanaged from undue inside influences. BART director Grace Crunican has a long record of project failures in Oregon and Washington.
    Warren Buffett mismanages BNSF big time, the jerk.

  • Wells

    The “Minority Report” TV series began with this scene: Autonomous car racing the wrong direction through 5-lane freeway traffic, sending cars flying out of its path, autonomous or not. The motorist disconnecting the autonomous control and went crazy. Great 1st episode.
    Self-driving operation is not safe. Don’t ever believe it is.
    We need “smart stoplights”. We need Electric Vehicles, not merely high-mileage. An EV is a portable power source that would save lives. GM/Ford still building crap.

  • farazs

    > In essence we all become part of mass transit.
    Yeah, except for the ‘mass’ part 😉

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