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Editorial: Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl

Walker Evans Walker Evans Editorial: Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl
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The City of Columbus beat out 78 other cities who applied for the Smart City grant, which is a great accomplishment and an amazing testimony to the abilities of our local leaders to rise above the competition and win our city some national recognition as well as transportation funding.

If you’ve read through the details of grant application, then you know that the Columbus program will impliment some improved technologies to the upcoming CMAX Bus Rapid Transit Line, it will create a payment app for local transit systems, and will help the city expand its growing fleet of electric vehicles.

While those ideas are all great, really the one thing that everyone is talking about — and what appears to be the largest component of the grant application — is the pledge to create a new driverless/autonomous vehicle system that will transport workers and residents between home and work throughout the Linden and Easton areas. Of course, everyone is extremely excited about the futuristic-sounding idea of hopping in a car and having it take you to where you want to go without touching a steering wheel, and many are already presuming that the new tech will solve all of our transportation-related woes.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

For a quick second, let’s rewind the clock to the mid-twentieth century. A lot of promises were being made to the American public by large and powerful companies (Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth, Buick, etc) that the personal automobile was not just the way of the future, but an integral part of the American Dream. Everyone should aspire to own a car (or two) and that doing so would enable you to live further away from the ills of city life, creating a peaceful refuge on the edge of the city that we’ve come to collective call “the suburbs”.

The ability for the average middle-class American to achieve this lifestyle was made easier by cheap oil and affordable vehicles, as well as billion-dollar subsidies by the federal government to build highway infrastructure and lobbying efforts by powerful companies to systematically destroy the competition of public transportation.

A half-century later, we’ve all come to realize that this singular pursuit of a car-centric society wasn’t without its downsides. The urban core of many US cities have been decimated in favor of development along our outerbelts. Millions of acres of woodland and farmland across the country have been demolished to make room for cheap housing developments and disposable strip malls. A complete reliance on automobile transportation has left Americans in a bind whenever oil prices spike because no alternatives exist. And approximately 70 percent of Americans are now classified as obese or overweight thanks in part to living in a society that encourages driving and discourages walking, which in turn is wreaking havoc on insurance premiums and healthcare costs for everyone.

Only in the past decade have we begun to take serious steps toward rectifying some of these issues. Both Millennials and Baby Boomers are more interested than ever before in walkable neighborhoods, which is leading to new urban infill development and smart-growth suburban planning. Exercise and wellness has become more of a priority, and the retrofitting of sidewalks and bike lanes are becoming more prominent throughout the US. Green building practices are fairly commonplace at this point with the conservation of some degree of green space becoming a priority in most new developments.

Yet today, we’re at a fork in the road (pun intended) with autonomous vehicles. A lot of promises are being made to the American public by large and powerful companies (Apple, Google, Tesla, Uber, etc) that the autonomous vehicle is not just the way of the future, but an integral part of the American Dream. Everyone should aspire to have an app-based subscription (or two) to a driverless car-hailing service, and that doing so will allow you to live anywhere you want and spent your commute time working, relaxing or even sleeping. And once again, we’re willing to pour massive amounts of federal and local subsidies into giving these private companies what they want, because we think it’s a cool idea.

Don’t get me wrong though. As a lifelong tech-geek, I find the technology of autonomous driving to be very exciting, especially considering that it can be used for a lot more than just cars. It could just as easily be applied to delivery vehicles, factory forklifts, buses, trains, and even aircraft and sea craft.

But as an individual in favor of a sustainable future where historic buildings and neighborhoods can be restored, suburban neighborhoods can become a place where walkability is encouraged, and Americans — especially children — can relearn the importance of living a healthy lifestyle that requires more movement and activity and less fast-food drive-throughs, I can’t help but entertain the idea that this new technology could be leading in the wrong direction once gain.

I’m not alone in this thought either. Here’s a handful of other articles penned in the past several years that touch upon a lot of the same ideas, and they are certainly worth reading:

So, what’s the solution? Certainly, I’m not proposing that Columbus should abandon an idea that has the ability to revolutionize transportation. Nor am I proposing that we return the federal funds to the US Government in the same way that Governor John Kasich returned a $400 million federal grant for a high-speed rail line across Ohio back in 2011. But a mindful approach is certainly advisable. Let’s not put all of our eggs into one basket and end up in a similar regretful situation in another half-century down the road. Maybe for every dollar we invest in autonomous vehicles, we should be investing a dollar in the alternatives. Let’s continue to improve our mass transit options so that we can move people in larger numbers between dense destination points instead of putting people into tens of thousands of single-occupant driverless cars. Let’s continue to build better bike and sidewalk infrastructure and encourage development patterns so that neighborhood residents can walk to a grocery store and bike to work without needed any kind of car at all.

And let’s make sure that today’s children in Columbus can grow up into a society where many different commuting options exist, rather than forcing them all to use just one technology that we think is a good idea today.

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  • Barrator

    I understand and agree with the concern about unchecked suburban sprawl, but this grant was awarded, in part, to connect one of our most impoverished and marginalized communities to healt

  • DC

    I am not interested in driverless cars AT ALL! I walk as much as possible, enjoy biking, and only use a car when it is otherwise not practical. I actually do enjoy driving (bumping some music etc.), but not as part of a daily grind. The rare times when I need to call a cab, I prefer to know that a human being is in the driver seat and I actually like to talk to most cabbies if they are willing. Driverless cars hold absolutely NO APPEAL whatsoever in my book. Knowing that some tech giant is helping guide me to my destination makes it even less appealing.

    • DC

      And I should have added that I LOVE trains of all types. Nothing beats the feeling of emerging from a subway station in a new part of an exciting city, enjoying a glass of wine while watching the countryside melt away from a high-speed/bullet train, or heading downtown to a large event knowing that parking won’t be needed. Of course, this is all personal anecdote, but it would be great if Columbus, State of Ohio, and the Midwest Region could incorporate this into the landscape. It is depressing listening to these small town-minded elitists dis rail, when so many places (rich and poor) have accomplished so much in building up national, regional, and local rail infrastructure.

    • CB_downtowner

      It depends on what path we want to go down. Will we use driverless cars to complement public transit or replace it? Because at least in terms of the Easton proposal, it sounds like they’re looking to make it easier to get from your house/apartment to a public transit stop where you can then take the already existing mass transit to get where you need to go. Have to imagine current public transit loses a lot of ridership because of lack of last mile connectivity. Though the question of whether this leads to sprawl is an interesting one. But maybe some of the benefits are: 1) it increases adoption of mass transit which builds stronger case for rail; 2) reduces highway congestion; 3) leads to more Easton-to-downtown mass transit commuters which means less downtown parking needed. Scary to be the guinnea pig, but given the benefits of having a hybrid driverless/public transit model, it’s also exciting that we’re thinking outside the box.

  • Zachary Farquhar
    • DC

      This article sounds very depressing. There appears to be some possible benefit for poorer, less central, working neighborhoods in terms of access to transport. Yet it seems, overall, to do nothing to foster the sort of long-term growth patterns that benefit everyone (including working class folk who live in the city) but much to further the status-quo and to allow technology giants to squeeze dollars out of existing infrastructure. Remember- many of these tech apps do nothing to envision future infrastructure and everything to skim money from existing infrastructure. There are exceptions, and I will hold my tongue to see how these things play out.

  • timmons

    Considering the horrific amount of waste, and the enormous joke that California’s High Speed Rail project has turned into, it’s looking like an almost certainty that Kasich did Ohioans a huge favor. Not that Walker could ever bring himself to accept that possibility…..


    • Shako

      I’m pro rail/alt transit, but couldn’t agree more here. The 3-C project had an average speed of 39 mph with a 6 hour travel time from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Obviously not a worthy investment with those parameters. Governor did the right thing. He even requested that the funds be used to update other infrastructure (including for freight rail) and Presidential administration said no.

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