Some people have predicted that, by 2030, 95 percent of all travel will be by shared driverless cars. The prediction is based on an estimate that the cost of using a shared car will be so much less than the cost of owning a car that hardly anyone will want to own a car.
Some environmental groups, including NRDC, ICLEI, and Transportation for America, want to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have proposed that no one should be allowed to drive a private car in “dense urban areas”; instead, only vehicles in “shared fleets” should be allowed. Since it is also their joint goal to make all urban areas dense, effectively they want to ban car ownership except in rural areas.
Not surprisingly, the companies that want to operate those shared fleets, including Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar, are supporting the proposal. So far, however, no auto manufacturers have signed on; no doubt they will be happy to sell their cars to anyone who buys them.
As the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Marc Scribner, points out, “many of the transportation departments in major U.S. cities are defined by their incompetence and corruption,” so giving them power over who gets to own the means of transportation is a particularly bad idea. But this proposal also is a part of urban planners’ schemes to make Americans live in ways that Americans don’t want to live.
Apparently, the fear is that owners of private vehicles are more likely to let their cars wander around with zero occupants or park in precious spaces that should be dedicated to someone’s microhouse. A ban on private vehicles also puts up a barrier at the edge of the dense urban area, however that is defined, requiring anyone who lives outside to transfer from their private vehicle to a shared vehicle when they cross the boundary.
In fact, it is quite likely that the most important result of driverless cars is that they will reduce the density of urban areas. On one hand, people who don’t have to drive will be willing to spend more time traveling to work. On the other hand, a reduction in congestion means that they can travel even further in whatever time they take.
Urban areas are only getting denser in places with growth boundaries or similar policies. Overall, the claim that people are moving back to the cities is a myth; in fact, 90 percent of population growth is in the suburbs and less than 1 percent is in downtowns. A recent survey asked people, “where do you want to live in five years?” and most answered they want to move to lower-density areas.
The solution to traffic and parking problems is to charge people by the mile their car drives and charge them for parking when there is a real cost of parking (which still means a lot of parking will be free because the cost of surface parking in suburban areas is nearly zero). If people are willing to pay those costs, why should they be denied the right to do so?
What this comes down to is that environmentalists only want driverless cars if they can use them to shape the cities to look the way they want. If driverless cars lead cities to look like something else, they will demonize them even more than they have ordinary cars.