Who needs transit when you've got the Google Car coming down the road?

Gosling in google car
Promo image Drive meets Google Car

In one of those fights where conservatives who don't like spending money on public transit that they don't use, Florida state senator Jeff Brandes has a new argument against big investments in rail: Autonomous vehicles (AVs) like the google car will make transit obsolete. He's quoted in Fortune:

I absolutely believe that technology is going to transform mass transit in a way that very few people can see,” he says. “It’ll definitely be within 15 or 20 years, which is right when the light rail system for Greenlight Pinellas [in his district] would be coming online.....It’s like they’re designing the pony express in the world of the telegraph."

David Morris of Fortune explains the appeal of AVs to conservatives.

Though many predict networks of AVs will be publicly financed, they can also be privately owned, and by most projections will require far less government-funded infrastructure than rail. Unlike trains or buses, they’ll take you wherever you want to go, when you want to go there, alone if you wish. Driverless cars will, in many of the ways so central to American identity, still be cars.


AVs are the new PRT

Angie Shmitt of Streetsblog points out how this kind of argument was used a decade ago with Personal Rapid Transit, (PRT), ridiculed by Ken Avidor as a cyberspace technodream. (I got into the middle of that war and was even given a prize for writing fishwrap)

AVs have really put PRT out to pasture; all PRTs really are is an AV on a dedicated track, like the popular system at Heathrow. Both respond to the peculiar American fear that everyone on a bus is either poor, deranged or both (or today, incubating ebola).

Technology never changes facts of geometry

Jarrett Walker has a thoughtful response to the question of whether AVs can replace transit.

Technology never changes facts of geometry. However successful driverless cars become, transit will remain crucial for dense cities because cities are defined by a shortage of space per person. Mass transit, where densities are high enough to support it, is an immensely efficient use of space.

However even he notes that driverless cars might do the job in suburban sprawl.

Republicans talking about driverless cars are talking exclusively about the interests of their own outer-suburban constituents, who tend to live in places that are unsuited to transit. In their Republican-only echo chamber, in which only Republicans count as citizens or even as valued economic units, they are right.

pat renderingInstitute without Boundaries/Screen capture

Ban garages! Stop building roads!

However over at Better Institutions, Shane Phillips has the best response of all to the latest cyberspace technodream, the newest techno-thrill. If AVs are taking over the roads, why just question transit? Why not be more proactive?

As I have noted before, AVs will be smaller, lighter, and shared, and we won't need very many of them, perhaps 10% as many cars as we have now, because now our cars are parked 90% of the time and the AVs will be running around on their own carrying other people or delivering sushi. Shane notes the implications of this:

This will significantly increase roadway capacity and throughput, so we should start eliminating roads and replacing them with bike lanes, sidewalks, parks, and housing. Since self-driving cars are so efficient, we can repurpose all that road space for more productive uses. At the very least we should impose an immediate moratorium on all new road construction, because fiscal conservatism. ...We should immediately eliminate all parking minimums, requirements for garage construction, and probably disallow curb cuts as well. All that parking we build today is going to be wasted in just a few short years!

So bravo to State Sentor Jeff Brandes, for both his long term vision, and for starting the conversation about the long-term implications of the autonomous vehicle on all of our transportation planning.

Tags: Self-driving car | Transportation | Urban Planning


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