A recent New York Times article discusses the arguments for and against putting off investment into public transport, in the hope that developing driverless car technology will make these investments unnecessary. There has been a lot of hype around these cars in recent years, although it is potentially tailing off more recently as the technology progresses a bit slower than expected.
Throughout a number of American cities, driverless cars are already affecting transport policy. In particular, there are some big questions about whether driverless cars will make major investments unnecessary.
But visions of the future they’ll bring have already crept into City Council meetings, political campaigns, state legislation and decisions about what cities should build today. That unnerves some transportation planners and transit advocates, who fear unrealistic hopes for driverless cars — and how soon they’ll get here — could lead cities to mortgage the present for something better they haven’t seen.
“They have imbued autonomous vehicles with the possibility to solve every problem that was ever created in transportation since the beginning of time,” said Beth Osborne, a senior policy adviser with the advocacy group Transportation for America. “That might be a tad bit unrealistic.”
In Indianapolis, Detroit and Nashville, opponents of major transit investments have argued that buses and trains will soon seem antiquated. In Silicon Valley, politicians have suggested something better and cheaper is on the way. As New York’s subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways.
Autonomous cars have entered policy debates — if not car lots — with remarkable speed. And everyone agrees that making the wrong bets now would be costly. Cities that abandon transit will come to regret it, advocates warn. Driverless car boosters counter that officials wedded to “19th-century technology” will block innovation and waste billions.
Dealing with this kind of uncertainty can be difficult. The last thing cash-strapped cities want to do is make huge investments into projects that will quickly become ‘stranded assets’. Nobody wants to be the modern equivalent of someone in the early 20th century who invested in more horses!
However, what I find always surprising is how this debate seems to come down to a fight between driverless cars and public transport projects. Why not driverless cars versus new highways? It seems like a bit of a ruse for the same old critics finding something new to jump on. One part of the article highlights this perfectly:
“I expect by 2030, most transit agencies are going to be zombie agencies that exist mainly to collect taxes from people to pay down their debt,” said Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute who blogs, provocatively, as “The Antiplanner.” In the meantime, he argues that cities should put no new money into infrastructure.
He acknowledged that he believed transit was wasteful for taxpayers long before everyone got excited about driverless cars. But now he and others who say no to transit also have something positive to say. Something better is coming.
Towards the end of the article we start to get some useful answers to the uncertainty question posed earlier. And, unsurprisingly, it’s our good old friend Jarrett Walker highlighting that some things really do stay constant over time, like geometry. And, when it comes to urban transport, geometry is boss.
Highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. Autonomous vehicles might quadruple that. The best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour. They move the most people, using the least space. No technology can overcome that geometry, said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transportation consultant.
“Let’s talk about what we can predict,” he said. “The problem of the city is a problem of sharing space. In 2100, the problem of the city will still be a problem of sharing space.”
By that logic, cities should invest even more in high-capacity rail and dedicated bus lanes in key corridors. Autonomous vehicles might handle other kinds of trips — rides from the train station home, or through suburban neighborhoods, or across the parts of Las Vegas without rail.
So driverless vehicles aren’t going to do the job of high capacity rapid transit systems, regardless of the hype.
The real benefits from this developing technology will come from finding ways of more efficiently providing public transport to low density areas, as well as squeezing much more out of motorway corridors where the risks of people/vehicle interaction are much reduced. Bus routes can be changed overnight if something more efficient comes along, but we certainly should look long and hard at whether any future motorway widening would actually be required if driverless cars came along and allowed many more people to travel along these corridors.