Editorial: Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl
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:
- Slate: (10/15/14) “The Self-Driving Tesla Might Make Us Love Urban Sprawl Again“
- FastCompany: (06/09/11) “How Google’s Robot Cars Will Revive Sprawl“
- Nature.org: (04/20/16): “Why Driverless Cars May Make Cities Sprawl Even More“
- Wall Street Journal: (06/20/16): “Driverless Cars to Fuel Suburban Sprawl“
- Bloomberg: (11/04/15) “Like the Suburbs? You’ll Love Driverless Cars.“
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.