Two years ago, the Antiplanner predicted that self-driving cars would put most transit agencies out of business. So it’s not surprising to see push-back against self-driving cars from transit supporters. What’s surprising is that it took so long.
“Cities need more public transit, not Uber and self-driving cars,” says Kevin Cashman, a policy analyst with the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “We don’t need self-driving cars — we need to ditch our vehicles entirely,” argues California writer Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian.
Cashman’s argument is that self-driving cars won’t be “affordable,” while public transit is. Excuse me? In 2014, American transit agencies spent $59 billion to move people 57 billion passenger miles (see page 106). That’s more than a dollar per passenger mile.
All spending on cars and driving, meanwhile, amounted to $1.1 billion (add lines 54, 57, and 116 of table 2.5.5). Highway subsidies in 2014 were about $45 billion (subtract gas tax diversions to transit and non-highway purposes from “other taxes and fees”). For that cost, Americans drove 2.7 trillion vehicle miles in light-duty vehicles. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per vehicle (see table 16), that’s 4.5 trillion passenger miles, which works out to an average cost of 26 cents a passenger mile.
In other words, transit is only “affordable” because three-fourths of the cost is subsidized, while less than 4 percent of the cost of driving is subsidized. I’m in favor of ending both subsidies, but someone has to pay those costs; when adding them in, driving is four times more affordable than transit.
Cashman’s dependence on low-income people to make his case isn’t credible anymore, both because most low-income people have cars and most people riding transit today aren’t low-income. Cashman makes some valid points about Uber’s lack of profitability and its use of aggressive lobbying, but that doesn’t change the fact that self-driving cars are going to completely change urban landscapes.
Solnit’s argument is even more shallow. She rides transit, so therefore everyone else should too. Her argument would be only a little stronger if she didn’t admit that she herself has not yet “ditched her car entirely.” The reality is that transit only works for a few people, as suggested by the facts that Americans drove more than 1.9 trillion vehicle miles in urban areas in 2014 but rode transit only 57 billion passenger miles. At 1.67 people per vehicle, that means transit accounted for about 1.7 percent of motorized urban travel.
Back in 2014, after the Antiplanner predicted the doom of public transit, Human Transit writer Jarrett Walker wrote a more insightful, but still flawed, response. Really dense cities will still need transit, he argued. I don’t disagree with that; my paper admitted that transit would survive in New York City and perhaps Chicago and San Francisco.
But Walker went on to argue that “technology never changes geometric facts.” That’s a ridiculous statement, as we know very well that steam trains, streetcars, and automobiles all resulted in major changes to urban landscapes. Since Henry Ford’s first use of the moving assembly line to make automobiles, for example, virtually all urban centers in the developed world have seen major declines in density. Manhattan, for example, had more than 2.3 million people in 1910; by 2010, it was less than 1.6 million. Most other centers have seen even greater declines.
So the question is not, as Walker poses it, will self-driving cars replace transit in really dense urban centers? Instead, it is, what will happen to those dense urban centers once self-driving cars give people even more freedom to live and work somewhere else?
A breath of fresh air comes from Portland-area resident Bill Conerly, who writes in Forbes that “self-driving cars will eliminate premium pricing for transit-oriented development” by reducing congestion and the costs of travel. I’m not sure there is much premium pricing for transit-oriented development (if there were, Portland wouldn’t have needed to spend well over $1 billion subsidizing it), but Conerly’s point is the same as the Antiplanner’s: cities shouldn’t spend on transit and transit-oriented development under the assumption that transportation technologies will never change.
As the Antiplanner has said before, no one can accurately predict how self-driving cars will affect cities, thus any long-term plans are likely to be wrong. Instead of making such plans, cities should focus on solving today’s problems today. As Gandalph said in my favorite quote from Lord of the Ring, “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”