Using Driverless Cars as an Excuse to Do
What Planners Wanted to Do Anyway

Minnesota planners want to be “ready” for driverless cars. But most of what they propose sounds like things that the anti-car crowd wants to do anyway.

This includes things like reducing parking spaces and shrinking the size of streets–both items high on urban planners’ agendas for years. While that may be possible when driverless cars come to dominate the road, there is no guarantee, so they shouldn’t jump the gun.

They are happy to jump the gun when it comes to not building new roads. “The last thing cities should do is add lanes to existing roads,” said a planner from the University of Minnesota. This assumes that driverless cars will dramatically relieve congestion and that neither population nor personal mobility will grow in the future. Actually, a good case can be made that some lanes should be added to existing roads both because they are needed now and because population and travel growth in some areas will make up for the potential congestion relief from driverless cars.

When it comes to not building light rail, however, planners are much less enthusiastic. When a Republican member of the Minnesota legislature pointed out that driverless cars may render light-rail obsolete, one of the planners responded that “large cities will still need high-capacity transit.” Let’s say that’s true–which I doubt–then why would you want to build light rail, which is by definition low-capacity transit?

Planners are also unenthused about letting people escape to the exurbs in their driverless cars. They propose to replace gas taxes with a per-mile tax “to rein in sprawl.” While the Antiplanner supports mileage-based user fees to pay for roads, I oppose mileage-based taxes–which by definition get spent on things other than what the payers are using–aimed at penalizing travel.

Some people are skeptical that driverless cars are even going to happen in the foreseeable future. Electronics engineer Michael Sena believes that “Vehicles that move around anywhere, void of any human presence, are not around the corner and will not be any time soon.”

Sena criticized the Rethinkx prediction that 95 percent of all travel in 2030 would be by driverless cars as “extravagant exaggeration.” While I agree with that, I’m not as pessimistic as Sena about timing. After all, a company called Torc Robotics just had a car drive itself 4,300 miles across 20 states. But Sena’s pessimism underscores my point about not jumping the gun.

The Antiplanner’s advice to cities thinking about the driverless future is to take care of today’s problems now and let the future take care of itself. There are so many uncertainties about what driverless cars will do that anyone’s (including the Antiplanner’s) “vision” of the future is likely to be colored by their own preconceived notions.

Yet there are things that need to be done today: replacing structurally deficient bridges, fixing congestion bottlenecks, filling potholes, coordinating traffic lights, and providing basic transit service for those who need it. All these steps need to be taken whether or not driverless cars take over the roads, and doing them all well is probably more than any state or local transportation agency can do anyway.

If you can’t do everything that needs to be done, then wasting billions on light rail, which isn’t needed now and will be even less needed in the future, is definitely the last thing cities should do. Planners who claim to care about the future shouldn’t make today’s and tomorrow’s problems worse by attempting to impose their vision on a future that may be very different from what they expect.


4 thoughts on “Using Driverless Cars as an Excuse to Do
What Planners Wanted to Do Anyway

  1. CapitalistRoader

    Sena’s first point in the The Dispacher article:

    Then there is the issue of whether vehicle drivers, both commercial and private, actually want to give up the steering wheel.

    He then provides a graphic from a survey indicating that they don’t. I think Mr. Sena could take Henry Ford’s advice:

    If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

    Sena ends the article ominously:

    Vehicles that can relieve the driver when conditions (road, weather, level of traffic) permit, are over the horizon. Vehicles that move around anywhere, void of any human presence, are not around the corner and will not be any time soon. The real question—one that I have posed—is whether they ever should be.

    Emphasis mine. Yet, aside from throwing around terms like uncritical cheer-leader and high-tech stupor he really gives no good reason why level 5 AVs shouldn’t be developed and put into use. The entire article is actually moralizing, high-toned version of this screed.

    It’s a shame because there’s lots of common ground; specifically, the need to improve automobile infrastructure.

  2. prk166

    Thanks CapitalistRoader

    I just want to drive my car myself without a computer doing it for me.
    ” ~

    I’d be willing to bet the person that wrote that doesn’t see the multiple computers that a 1986 — yes, 1986 — Dodge Lancer used to run as a problem. They don’t care that a computer is making sure the engine properly fires but they think the world is ending when a computer keeps the wheels in the lane?

  3. CapitalistRoader

    prk166, as a cheapskate who fixes his own car, I take issue with his description of the AMC products Gremlin and Pacer as automotive atrocities. Both AMC cars had long lasting, reliable, seven-main-bearing inline six cylinder engines and the Pacer had the equally reliable Torqueflite transmission. Both cars were far better in almost every respect than their competitors’ Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega.

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