Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Most Read: Are Self Driving Cars Just Us Ignoring the Real Issues?

I'm going to start a new series on the blog called "Most Read".  It will feature the most read article from the day before on The Direct Transfer Daily as well as some thoughts I have on it.  It's been hard to blog lately but I need to get into it again to put some half baked thoughts to screen.

Today's most read piece was one by Jim Bacon entitled "The Slow, Inevitable Demise of Traditional Mass Transit"   In it he talks about WMATA's declining transit patronage in the region and that part of the blame goes to the union while local government support will not be able to keep up with demands. 

He then mentions the blue state transit model failure which just seems like tossing red meat to me. 
By “blue state,” I refer to a set of attitudes that are most prevalent in blue states: a sympathy for transit unions, which means high compensation costs and low productivity; a reluctance to charge riders the full costs of providing their service, which depresses revenues; and a proclivity to seek federal aid, which comes with expensive regulatory strings attached.
I don't have sympathy for bad work rules but I do think people should be paid fair wages.  I'm not necessarily pro union when these things are blatantly wrong but since when did anyone pay the full cost of the transportation service they use?  Well, everyone pays full cost but it's just snuck out of your pocket instead of a direct charge.  As many have said before and many will say again, why do we always have to pull out the "pay for itself" trope.  We know that nothing does!  If we did our cities would look a LOT different as there's a lot of subsidies flying every which way.

When Kevin DeGood came on the podcast, he had the numbers to prove it.  Data liberalization is amazing! He found 5.5 percent of roads carry 55 percent of the traffic.  That's definitely not paying for itself  and it shows an over-reliance on highways in major cities that carry so many cars, they can't keep up.  The interstates between cities many times do actually cover costs in gas tax revenue.  Once we get into the details. interesting findings come out.

But let's step outside this often debated construct for a bit and talk about "shared-ridership revolution".  At first blush after watching the debate for a while, I'm going to come out and say I don't like it.  Sure there are first mile/last mile solutions that make sense and they can be useful in a pinch, I just don't like the inevitability of self driving cars and the demise of transit in cities because I think its short sighted.  I think Tom Vanderbilt's article on futurism pushed me more towards the skeptical side as well.  He shares points other have made...
As the psychologist George Lowenstein and colleagues have argued, in a phenomenon they termed “projection bias,” people “tend to exaggerate the degree to which their future tastes will resemble their current tastes.” 
To me, bike share isn't usually the main focus of the topic while "Ride Hailing" otherwise known as Uber or Lyft is.  But these are just more convenient taxis and they are still two tons of metal running around on constrained streets in urban areas.  People also focus on self driving cars as if they are a panacea but I don't know if people noticed that 10 car BART trains and Muni buses and LRVs are always crush loaded at rush hour.  I'm sure many WMATA buses and trains are the same way.  

That is a GEOMETRY problem that these apps won't solve because they are projecting in their current paradigm. Suburban car problems.  Kind of like lots of tech and apps being 20 year old man problems.  If everyone in a city decided to hail a self driving car, we'd still have traffic but even more of it!  Think about those 60 bus riders each in those little google cars.  Still taking up way more space! 

The problem in my mind is that we continue to try and solve issues we created ourselves in a strange circular fashion. Technologists have always been saying we are going to keep moving out and will need mobility solutions for that change.  But going back to the "pay for itself" argument and the actual usage of roads, we find that the free roads are used to the point of congestion and are not actually supported at current "usage fee" rates.

So the question for me then is, are self driving cars the next freeway? Why are we trying to solve a problem (congestion and living too far from work) with more vehicles when all we have to do now is price roads accordingly and free up land uses?  When self driving car corridors get overused, are we going to have to price those corridors too?  Did we just build a whole system that went back to the old problem because we wanted a techno fix for something that only required economics?

Cities are still thriving.  People want to be near other people.  And while ride sharing is useful in cities now, it's only useful because transit many times is not.  Guess what the problem is usually with transit and even biking and walking.  CARS ARE IN THE WAY!  Give me self driving buses that come every two minutes in a grid with their own lanes.  Do you think we'll need as many self driving cars in cities then? I bet at some point we'll even have to create congestion cordons just for self driving cars.

So why are people saying transit will be changing under the disruption of the "shared ridership revolution"?  Instead of this circular problem I feel like we're creating, why not just address the main problems?  Housing affordability and road pricing.  Tech can't seem to wrap its collective heads around those problems though because right now, those are political problems.  So let's just build a car that will drive itself. 

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1 comment:

murphstahoe said...

Jeff - you match my exact thinking from about a year ago. I have since come around to a new mindset - I think you are guilty of some of the same projection bias.

Right now, in San Francisco, we dedicate a lot of land to parking. Parking lots, parking garages, garages in homes. In the utopia of the shared self-driving car these garages go away. That's a lot of housing that can infill into cities. A lot of why we see car usage is because distances are too far. Instead of solving the last mile problem, a better solution is to eliminate that problem by moving people into the last mile.

Then consider this line - "Guess what the problem is usually with transit and even biking and walking. CARS ARE IN THE WAY!" Well, this is somewhat true, but in many cases the primary problem is that a car just might run you over. This is especially acute for biking. But if we do a very good job with production of the self driving car, the problem of getting hit by a car goes away.

With safer roads, walking and cycling become more attractive and get a higher mode share. And they become even more attractive because driving your own car is seen as "free" once you own the car. When you hail a "shared" self driving car, you have to pay. Now the formerly hidden costs are in full view and people make rational decisions and bike/walk more since the formerly obvious cost of danger goes away.

With explicit costs for taking the shared self driving car, the incentive to carpool goes way up, and the technology will advance to where it becomes trivial. You hail a car to send your kid to school, the app tells you that another child has just boarded a car, do you want to share the ride? Car trips cut in half (though what we really hope is that kids walk or bike, but you get my point).

This frees up space in many ways. We can also reclaim street parking. In many cases we can reclaim bike lanes which are built for reasons like traffic calming - in the self-driving car paradigm we don't need traffic calming because all we need to do is program the car to be calm and voila! That freed up road space can become many things. If traffic volumes are very low, entire streets can be pulled off of the grid - imagine just plopping housing and retail in the 3 traffic lanes of Valencia, leaving the former parking and bike lanes for bikes and emergency vehicles only. Which then continues this virtuous cycle.

Dare to dream.