Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next ten years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in twenty years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. These technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictabie, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so.

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employment centers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce VMT or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or doing other tasks that don’t require lots of supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

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Wait Six Years to Buy Your Next Car

You’ll be able to buy a car that can drive itself under most conditions, with an option for override by a human driver, in 2020, according to the median estimate in a survey of 217 attendees of the 2014 Automated Vehicles Symposium. By 2030, the group estimated, you’ll be able to buy a car that is so fully automated it won’t even have the option for a human driver.

A demonstrator car with two Lidar laser sensors hanging on the front bumper, five radar sensors hiding behind the fenders, and two optical sensors with 360-degree fields of view on the roof. Click image for a larger view.

Though 2020 is just six years away, there remains a lot of debate over how the industry is going to get there. Most auto manufacturers are incrementalists, adding automated features such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking, and traffic-jam assist, two or three at a time. Google and some others in Silicon Valley, however, are more interested in producing highly or even fully automated cars as soon as possible.

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Autonomous Cars Yes, V2I No!

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech in Virginia calling for mandatory installation of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications in all cars. By coincidence, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is holding its annual symposium on autonomous (that is, driverless) cars in California.

V2V allows vehicles to communicate with one another to allow them to avoid accidents, while V2I allows highway infrastructure (such as traffic signals) to communicate directly with motor vehicles. While Obama touts the safety benefits of these technologies, there are at least four reasons why they should not be mandatory.

First, V2V and V2I communications pose serious security risks for travelers and cities. With V2V communications, an automobile that suffers a fender-bender would communicate to all nearby vehicles that they ought to take a different route to avoid congestion.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is attending a conference on driverless cars near San Francisco this week. The first session, on Monday afternoon, dealt with the process of developing standards and best practices.

In 2009, when I was writing Gridlock, my main recommendation was that someone should convene a working group to write such standards. I suggested that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials lead the process, but I should have known that a better group would be the Society of Automotive Engineers. In any case, I’m glad it is getting done.

Today there will be a session on implications of driverless cars for regional planning. Since most regional planners seem stuck in the early twentieth century, it will be interesting to see what the presenters propose.


Facts versus Ideology

Debates over smart growth–sometimes known as new urbanism, compact cities, or sustainable urban planning, but always meaning higher urban densities and a higher share of people in multifamily housing–boil down to factual questions. But smart-growth supporters keep trying to twist the arguments into ideological issues.

The choice should be yours: suburbs, or . . .

For example, in response to my Minneapolis Star Tribune article about future housing demand, Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, writes, “O’Toole, like many conservatives, equates low-density development with personal freedom.” In fact, I equate personal freedom with personal freedom.

. . . New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

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Why Plan Housing?

University of Minnesota planning professor Richard Bolan has responded to the Antiplanner’s critique of the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council’s plan to emphasize high-density housing and discourage large-lot single-family homes. My op ed pointed out that planner Arthur Nelson’s predictions that the demand for single-family homes was declining were based on oversimplified surveys that asked people questions like would they want to live in a “walkable community.”

A lot more factors are at work in people’s housing choices. “Given a choice between a 1,400-square-foot home on a tiny lot in a congested part of town for $375,000 and a 2,400-square-foot home on a large lot in a quiet suburb for $295,000,” my op ed said, “most people would prefer the larger home.” My point was the issues were too complicated for planners to be able to see what people would want 26 years in the future, and since homebuilders can adequately respond to changes in demand, there was no need for central planners to try to predict the unpredictable.

Bolan admits that he’s “not a supporter of Arthur C. Nelson’s report” on future housing demand. But Professor Bolan has his own reasons why central planners should try to determine people’s housing choices in the future: externalities.

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San Antonio Petition May Stop Streetcar

San Antonio streetcar opponents submitted a petition today to allow voters to decide whether the region’s transit agency, VIA, should spend $280 million on a 5.9-mile streetcar. They needed about 20,000 signatures, and submitted well over 26,000 of which they personally pre-verified nearly 24,000.

Streetcar skeptics hold a press conference on the steps of San Antonio’s city hall as they present signatures for a ballot measure requiring that voters approve any streetcars built in city streets or rights of way. Photo by Michael Dennis.

Unfortunately, this petition still has several hurdles to leap. First, the city is claiming that signature gatherers didn’t follow proper procedures; the petitioners claim they did, and that the procedures the city wants them to follow only apply to recall petitions. Second, even if the measure makes it to the ballot and is approved by voters, VIA argues that it won’t be bound by the results.


Bus Shelters for the Poor, Trains for the Rich

Low-income residents of the Twin Cities can rest easy, as planners at the Metropolitan Council, the area’s regional planning agency, are proposing a regional transit equity plan. According to the Metropolitan Council’s press release, this equity plan consists of:

  1. Building 75 bus shelters and rebuilding 75 existing shelters “in areas of racially concentrated poverty”; and
  2. “Strengthen[ing] the transit service framework serving racially concentrated areas of poverty” by building bus-rapid transit and light-rail lines to the region’s wealthy suburbs.

The blue line, the yellow line to St. Cloud, and the green line between the Minneapolis interchange and St. Paul Union Depot are open; the next priority is the green line from the interchange and Eden Prairie.

Bus shelters for the poor, light rail for the rich: that sounds equitable! Of course, the poor will be allowed to ride those light-rail trains (for example, if they travel to the suburbs to work as servants), just as the well-to-do will be allowed to use the bus shelters. But for the most part, the light rail is for the middle class.

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Is MagLev a Game Changer?

Much like the proposed Florida passenger trains that can be run without government subsidies (but can we have some anyway?), train supporters are gushing over Japan’s tentative decision to build a magnetically levitated (maglev) line from Tokyo to Osaka. Japan apparently sees this as a way to revitalize its economy, especially if it can sell the trains to the United States and other countries.

Maglev train being tested in Japan. Wikimedia commons photo by Yosemite.

The Antiplanner has maintained that transportation improvements are economic game changers only if they make travel faster, cheaper, and/or more convenient. Maglev meets only one of those criteria: at projected speeds of a little more than 300 mph, maglev would be at least 50 percent faster than existing high-speed trains and possibly even faster than flying over short distances. Flights from Tokyo to Osaka, the route of the proposed maglev, take about 80 minutes, and the maglev promises to reduce times to little more than an hour.

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Funny, Funny Men

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver are very funny men. Their humor also has a distinct liberal bias. It’s possible that they don’t think they are biased, because they sometimes criticize Democrats as well as (though not nearly as often as) Republicans. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t biased.

By “liberal bias,” I don’t mean they always support Obama. Most of their humor is directed to two targets: first, government officials who lie, waste money, and/or support policies that kill innocent people; and second, people who don’t trust government.

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