Self-Driving Cars Won’t Fix Our Transit Woes

Real transportation futurism looks more like a fleet of self-driving buses.
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Real transportation futurism looks more like a fleet of self-driving buses.
The solitude remains the same. (Illustration: Susie Cagle)

The solitude remains the same. (Illustration: Susie Cagle)

In early February, the Department of Transportation released its 30-year “framework for the future” plan, which anticipates how transit will change in America.

In the past, the Department of Transportation has done a lot to prove it is not very good at seeing the future. The agency has been drastically overestimating predicted car usage for almost the entire time it has been predicting such things.

But in a move that signals a new era of federal innovation, neoliberal policy dealing, or perhaps both, United States Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx debuted the government’s vision of the transportation future at what is arguably one of the world’s largest hubs of the future: Google. In their fireside chat, Google’s Eric Schmidt called Foxx “a real innovator.”

A self-driving car promises to give you back time while it reinforces the need for the infrastructure that took that time from you in the first place.

The plan as a whole moves America’s transit focus a bit away from individual cars and toward multiple modes of transportation: trains, buses, ferries, bikes.

But cars, and the streets and highway infrastructure they use, are still a central part of the way the country works, moves, and lives. America’s reliance on vehicle travel has always been both visionary and reactionary, a response to sprawling geography and a means to its unsustainable development and operation.

Now we’re on the verge of a new chapter in that transit history, with Google, Apple, and others working on disrupting the personal vehicle by making it self-operating.

Self-driving cars are cool in a Jetsons future kind of way: Artificial intelligence promises to provide more time and efficiency in our lives, to make us safer, to give us a better quality of life. In their current form, they also double down on the mid-20th century bet on the staying power of suburban sprawl—hardly an ideal or particularly imaginative vision of the future when our highways are congested and our cities are growing. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

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For better and for worse, modern America was forged by the personal vehicle. After World War II, domestic car manufacturing created thousands of good union jobs in company towns from Detroit to Oakland. Massive “urban renewal” highway constructions destroyed poor communities of color to make way for more affluent travelers commuting to work and to nearby vacation spots. In turn, personal car ownership allowed for white flight from cities to suburbs nationwide—and then for the further development of those far-off neighborhoods.

The function of the car remains the same: It physically separates us from our communities, from one another.

Cars once symbolized possibility, escape, freedom, cool. But driving stopped being fun some time ago: Congestion increased, carpooling plummeted, congestion increased some more. In many places, road systems are bursting at the seams, and highways are being hastily widened to increase capacity.

As the process of driving has become more dismal, the cars themselves have become small entertainment centers. Only 30 years ago, cup holders weren’t standard: Now we have DVD players and Wi-Fi, too—all the better to entertain nearly 3.5 million “super-commuters,” who travel more than 90 minutes or more each way to get to work.

A self-driving car promises to give you back that time while it reinforces the need for the infrastructure that took that time from you in the first place.

Cars take much from us. Legendary author and activist Jane Jacobs called them “the chief destroyer of American communities.” They put us in danger, and they damage the planet. Technology can do much to fix those things—sophisticated autonomous sensors, clean renewable power sources. But the function of the car remains the same: It physically separates us from our communities, from one another.

But trends are shifting—per the DoT’s cloudy crystal ball, our total travel in miles is not growing, and is, in fact, on a soft downward slope. More and more people are moving to urban centers and dense, close-in suburbs—more than half the global population lives in cities. They aren’t buying cars. Train and bus systems are experiencing record demand. It seems we want Jacobs more than Jetsons: diverse and shared public spaces and services as opposed to decentralized and personal ones.

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The great promise of the autonomous car is not the car. The real innovation is in the autonomous bus.

To rely on autonomous personal vehicles as the future of transit is to ignore what cars have already done to our communities and ourselves.

It would likely be a more difficult initial disruption, but self-driving buses could do far more good for American communities and people than a fleet of new luxury cars that most will not be able to afford. The country was built for cars, which means it was also built for buses. They could run efficiently and cheaply between cities and suburbs without the addition of new infrastructure. The technology could also re-brand public bus culture. With a robot driving, they’d probably be more timely. And according to preliminary research, they’d certainly hold more capacity than personal vehicles.

“The Google bus” could take on a positive connotation.

All of this could happen. But first we have to let go of the promise of fully automated roadways that operate like conveyor belts. Even with a computer behind the wheel, we’d still be trapped, alone in a bubble. To rely on autonomous personal vehicles as the future of transit is to ignore what cars have already done to our communities and ourselves.

Self-driving cars are not a revolution. In their current form, they’re more reactionary than visionary, a response to congested highways and a reinforcement of unsustainable suburban sprawl. Anthony Foxx knows we don’t really want that. So does Eric Schmidt. So don’t be distracted by the car—get on the bus.

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