Guest Editorial: Driverless Cars Could Wreck Livable Cities

This meme which floated around last week illustrates why driverless cars offer little progress towards building sustainable cities." width="580" height="435" /> A tweet by Jon Orcutt illustrates why driverless cars offer little towards sustainable cities.
A tweet by Jon Orcutt illustrates why driverless cars offer little towards sustainable cities.

Over the past year driverless cars have been promoted as a panacea for livable cities. The storyline is that driverless cars will help reduce car ownership, free-up urban space for walking and biking, and help reduce death and injury. The USDOT has joined the parade with its “smart city challenge,” awarding Columbus, Ohio a $40 million prize to implement a demonstration project that includes incorporating driverless cars.

San Francisco was among the finalists for this award, but it might be a good thing that the city fell short. San Francisco’s political establishment – the mayor, Board of Supervisors, and its proxies at the SFMTA and Planning Department – frequently talk up their sustainable transportation ambitions, but by and large, when it comes to decisions about San Francisco streets, they pander to motorists. With driverless cars and other “connected” vehicles, the pandering may intensify. We’ll see more, not fewer cars.

Here’s why.

Self driving cars still use space and energy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Self-driving cars use space and energy that has to come from somewhere. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

At the core, the politics of cars won’t change. Mass motorization will remain in the sprawl surrounding American cities, including the Bay Area. Cars, no matter how propelled, will still be atomistic, privatized, individualistic forms of mobility that undermine arrangements based on cooperation. Driving a car under unfettered conditions will continue to be a form of mobility that usurps public space and crowds out modes of transportation that are more egalitarian, such as public transit, and superior for decarbonizing transport, such as bicycling.

Private tech interests will clamor for more lanes for their cars, just like conventional car companies do now. You can bet Uber, Google, and other tech titans will pressure cities to cede space. The progressive, equitable, and clean modes–bicycles and transit–will get short shrift.

Then there’s the “rebound effect” whereby people find that using a driverless car is so easy they don’t mind longer trips or congestion. One scenario suggests households that currently have two or more cars might shift to a single shared car, but that car would actually drive more as it shuttles (often empty) back and forth chauffeuring the household members throughout the day. A single vehicle is driven 75 percent more than previously, while children, the disabled, and elderly would summon evermore driving miles.

There is an extreme climate emergency; time is running out in what Naomi Klein refers to as “decade zero.” Overemphasizing technological fixes like driverless cars is just another form of climate denial. It enables people to put off lifestyle changes and lulls people into inaction while waiting for a miracle. People who once saw merit in transit or bikes might now hope for a driverless-car solution, making it harder to enact municipal-scale bike systems or transit.

Think about it. The USDOT is paralyzed because of Congress, High-Speed Rail is floundering, we have no national bicycle policy, and transit is underfunded, and yet a “smart city challenge” is putting driverless cars on a fast-track. San Francisco created a special office of innovation at the SFMTA, while bicycle projects languish and Muni is hobbled by backlashes over creating transit space.

If big tech and its political allies really want to help make our cities more livable and reduce greenhouse gases, here’s a modest proposal. Instead of focusing on making it easier to drive, focus on making it harder. We can start by installing governing devices into all cars–driverless or not. As cars exit freeways, governing devices make cars travel at 18 mph, speeds that are safe for the human scale. Then we can get back to the real solutions to our global crisis–bikes, buses, and a cultural shift encouraging slowing down, less consumption, and less driving.

Jason Henderson is a Professor in Geography & Environment at SF State and author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco and co-author of Low Car(Bon) Communities: Inspiring Car-Free and Car-Lite Urban Futures

  • @JustJake – Very few people OWN their cars. Most cars are OWNed by banks. We just use “ownership” wording to make people feel better, and to affirm ideology based on these feelings. But in real live actual reality, there’s not a lot of difference between a bank owning cars or some other concern leasing cars.

  • @hailfromsf – How do we know? Tesla clearly had their “first fatality in X,000,000 miles” press release cued up and ready to go in case of an autonomous car fatality, and released a number based on their proprietary data that we have no ability to verify.

    That fatality being the sole data point, there are no conclusions to draw from it, but the context is that FARS reports 1.08 fatalities per 100,000,000 non-autonomous car miles (in 2014, the latest available figure), which turns out to be only slightly worse.

  • JustJake

    BS. Financing is a choice, with occasional financial benefits. My immediate family 100% owns all its cars. And your supposition about financing applies to houses equally. So the banks own all houses? Jeez guy, come back to earth, you might ‘feel better’.

  • @JustJake – Your family notwithstanding, car ownership average 2-3 years. There is an economic pull towards that figure, since a car’s value — which deprecates immediately — really plummets after that.

  • @David Rosnow – You are describing the Jevons Paradox, and you are absolutely right.

    Consider Braess’s Paradox as well. Supposedly “smarter” vehicles will increase the number of informed decisions that can be made, but ultimately what this leads to is a greater number of conflicts, which slows everything down.

  • JustJake

    The cars “value” can plummet, whatever, but cars made in the last decades last 2-300,000 miles, and the average age of car ownership in 2012 was 11.1 years, and has increased. Those who choose to finance may have payments for the first 3-4 year portion. Obviously, you are not familiar with being an automobile owner.

  • Thoughtful Skeptic

    It is not completely orthogonal as AVs could make shared vehicles more attractive as one could basically order the closest available car to the own location. This is the only major advantage I see for AVs from a city planning perspective.

    Cities are constantly changing. They are no thing which is once designed and then fixed for eternity. They usually are not being designed as a whole to start with but rather a clustered mix of countless plans and masterplans or various levels of capitalist and chaotic organization principles.

    The nature of the mobility backbone is a major factor in how cities develop however. Individual motorized traffic, no matter if AVs or traditional cars, lead to the suburban and edge city layout. Those layouts have of course many disadvantages and are fairly hostile to humans outside from the isolated pedestrian and building isles. Many cities are trying to get away from that layout again and strengthen pedestrian friendly multifunctional dense districts. Those are incompatible with car optimized city layouts, autonomous or not.

  • hailfromsf

    Tesla’s autopilot is not autonomous. I was referring more to Google’s self-driving cars.

  • @hailfromsf – When Google’s first autonomous car collision happened, they had no comment until they checked the data. A day later they blamed human error. We just have to take their word for that, since that data is of course also proprietary.

  • hailfromsf

    That’s fine with me. When their first at-fault autonomous collision happened, they checked the data and later declared computer-error.

  • murphstahoe

    tailgating is not inherently reckless. The safe following distances we have drilled into us from the first drivers education classes are based on human reaction times.

  • murphstahoe

    I don’t think you understand what it was I was trying to say.

  • Passenger yes, Freight, no.
    Seriously, rather than trying to revive the utterly DEAD horse of passenger rail, which lacks the door-to-door convenience of road transport and lacks the speed of air travel, why not focus the railroads on what they do *really* well, namely, haul freight?

  • JustJake

    Passenger rail subsidies will be dwarfed by HSR subsidies I suspect. Agreed, freight has made very impressive strides forward recently, and the earlier subsidies surely helped them obtain that footing. The real estate right-of-way subsidy was huge. Lately, it appears they receive indirect help.

    “3. Subsidized railroads
    Coal is the most important commodity transported on railroads in America. As the Association of American Railroads describes, “In 2009, coal accounted for 47 percent of tonnage and 25 percent of revenue for U.S. railroads.” U.S. railroads get loans and loan guarantees from government agencies like the Department of Transportation/Federal Railroad Administration and have received numerous tax incentives for investments in new infrastructure. ”



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