The much-hyped technology is no substitute for improved public transit and walkable streets
At the center of UCLA’s campus, there’s a banner advertising some of the university’s newest groundbreaking research. It features the outline of a small vehicle and reads, “The 405 is a joyride … in a driverless car.”
The 405 is the main freeway serving the west side of Los Angeles County, and along with earthquakes, humidity and natural aging, it’s the stuff of Angelenos’ nightmares. The federal government has cited the highway, with its average daily traffic of 374,000 vehicles, as the nation’s single busiest roadway. L.A. sunk five years and more than $1 billion into a project to widen its right-of-way through a congested mountain pass. (Officials called the temporary closure of the roadway “Carmageddon.”) The city has spent several times that amountexpanding its mass transit system, with the promise that light rail and bus-only lanes would alleviate some of the region’s famous traffic jams. If anything, the traffic has gotten worse.
As for driverless cars, they’re likely to be a fixture of our roads by the end of this decade. Aided by a scanning technology called “lidar,” Google started testing vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area this year, Tesla’s Autopilot program is now in beta and conventional carmakers such as Nissan and Ford aren’t far behind. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimates that by 2040, up to 75 percent of cars on the road will be autonomous. Could this be the solution to L.A.’s notorious traffic?
Probably not. Since I moved here three months ago to study urban planning, I’ve been engaged in the ultimate class project: living in L.A. without a car. Public transit junkies often imagine that with the right combination of incentives and policies, any city can be made into Manhattan. All around the L.A. area, heroic efforts are being made to reduce auto dependence and improve people’s ability to get around by foot, bike and public transit. But the wide streets, ample parking and huge tracts of single-family houses don’t lie: L.A.’s urban form is almost entirely built to move automobile traffic as quickly as possible.
The urban planner Fred Kent famously says, “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” Driverless cars are an exciting development, but they are still cars. They’re very much in their infancy, and much of the reporting on them has centered on technology and design. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars,” two passengers gaze upon London from the computer’s-eye view of a Honda CR-V, watching as “workers setting out for a lunchtime stroll become spectral silhouettes” and “glass towers unravel into the sky like smoke.” These are suggestive images, full of intrigue and possibility. Still, driverless cars aren’t just a technological marvel; they raise serious urban planning questions.
In terms of safety and parking, they are likely to be a force for good. Perhaps we’ve become numb to the damage because it happens so often, but it’s worth remembering that cars are deadly weapons that we entrust to almost everybody, whatever their competence or emotional stability. Starting this Halloween in New York City, 13 pedestrians were killed by drivers in as many days — including young Bronx trick-or-treaters standing on the sidewalk. In 2013, drivers in Mexico City killed 491 pedestrians. Everyone has had a close brush with a driver who is texting, eating, applying mascara or falling asleep at the wheel. By contrast, autonomous vehicles are so cautious that they often have trouble crossing intersections,and recently one got pulled over by police for driving too slowly.
As for parking: The average car is in active use for 5 percent of the day. The massive space required to store thousands of idle vehicles for the remaining 95 percent has been a disaster for urban land use. In the post-World War II period, U.S. cities including L.A. tore out the hearts of their downtowns — places that by their nature benefit from high density — and have given away immensely valuable urban land, effectively as a gift to suburban drivers, ever since. On top of that, drivers “cruising” for parking (circling city blocks looking for a cheap spot) can increase congestion by as much as 30 percent. Most American cities have parking minimums built into law, significantly increasing the cost of housing construction. Autonomous cars won’t simply vanish into thin air when we’re done using them, but unlike cars today, they will be able to relocate themselves away from the most valuable plots of urban land, freeing up space for new housing, businesses and parks.
All this portends a brighter future for L.A. and similar cities. But even today, the truth is that my car-free lifestyle is very doable — sometimes even convenient. L.A. has a robust bus system that I use to commute to UCLA, and so far I’ve found it to be reliable (L.A.’s bus and train networks combine for about 1.5 million weekday boardings, third in the nation after New York and Chicago). My home in the Palms neighborhood is a 15-minute walk from a light rail stop that takes me to Downtown L.A., which has recently come into its own as a cultural and culinary hotspot. Almost everything I need is within biking distance of my apartment, and when I have to, I can rely on the generosity of friends with cars.
However, my commute is easy only because the daily itinerary of a childless graduate student is fairly simple, and because I can afford to live in a neighborhood that’s on a direct bus line to campus. I can use my phone to track bus arrivals in real time, or call a Lyft if I’m in a rush — but these apps that have surely saved me hours of wasted time are unavailable to those who can’t afford a smartphone. Socially, I’m surrounded by fellow planning students who love walking, biking and transit — but when I leave school, I’m reminded very quickly that the stigma against public transit and its users remains strong in L.A.
Driverless cars, promising as they are, cannot change a simple spatial reality: Single-occupancy private vehicles are not an efficient way to move people around an urban area that, despite its reputation, is by some measures the country’s densest. Nor should any of us be rushing to cede control of urban transportation systems to billion-dollar profit-driven companies. Take Uber: The “car-sharing” company provides a popular and often valuable service, but its poor labor record and transparent desire to replace public transit should give pause to anyone who values the “public” part of that phrase.
More than half a century ago, we gave for-profit car companies the opportunity to remake American cityscapes to their liking. It was a disaster. When the time comes, I’ll be excited to explore Los Angeles in an autonomous vehicle. But I’m more excited for the day I can traverse the whole of the city by bus, train or bike without having to set foot in a car at all.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.