Mike Bloomberg wants cities to get ready for self-driving cars


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Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg loves self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs). He thinks that they are going to change the world; he is quoted in the Washington Post:

The advent of autonomous cars is one of the most exciting developments ever to happen to cities," Bloomberg said. "And if mayors collaborate with one another, and with partners in the private sector, they can improve people’s lives in ways we can only imagine today."

James Anderson, who works for Bloomberg Philanthropies, expands on the theme:

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for cities to address some of their most challenging issues, from pedestrian safety to carbon reduction to economic mobility”.

There is no question that if they can be made to work safely and play nice with others, that AVs will have a dramatic impact on our cities. The problem comes when you see headlines in Bloomberg like this one: Super-Cheap Driverless Taxis May Kick Mass Transit to the Curb

The authors note that new, cheap self-driving taxis could be problematic competitors for public transit:

As prices fall, the challenge for cities is that the cars may become too popular. Instead of complementing public transit, they may lure commuters away from buses and trains, inundating streets with drone cars.

Then they accentuate the positive:

Once companies work out the kinks, they say driverless technology may make traffic accidents nearly nonexistent. Computers don’t fall asleep at the wheel, get drunk or text while driving. Electric automated vehicles could reduce smog and greenhouse gases. Lower-priced taxis, meanwhile could make bus and train stations more accessible for suburban commuters, boosting mass transit ridership.

This is where it gets interesting. We are seeing more and more politicians trashing transit projects, claiming that they are being made obsolete by the coming AV revolution. Beverly Hills is going to rely on them to take people to the new transit line. In Hamilton, Ontario, those fighting a new light rail transit line believe AVs would be a much better alternative.

But might the transition phase to the Internet of Things, driverless cars, and a sharing economy be well-served by a fleet of driverless vehicles programmed to behave just like an LRT, but with far more flexibility and far less disruption? And it looks to me that we could get there at least as fast as we could get to a fully functioning LRT. And, it could be phased in without major disruptions.

Transportation expert Jarrett Walker has noted that it just doesn’t scale, that AVs might be useful in outer suburbia and rural areas, but that it cannot replace mass transit in cities.

That’s because it takes lots of people out of big transit vehicles and puts them into small ones, which increases the total number of vehicles on the road at any time. …When we are talking about space, we are talking about geometry, not engineering, and technology never changes geometry. You must solve a problem spatially before you have really solved it.

Walker concludes:

Smart cities aren’t just the ones that chase the latest technology fads. They’re the ones that think carefully about the spatial, geometric problem that a dense city is. Because if it doesn’t work geometrically, it doesn’t work.

I am a huge fan of Mike Bloomberg, but really, here is the guy who promoted active transportation more than anyone else, who built miles of bike lanes and promoted stairs, so big on healthy living. He knew that the urban solution was to get people walking and biking. And yet he seems to have lost sight of this in the glare of the AV headlights.

Watch this video of a Tesla car in autopilot mode. Look where it is going from and to, and the kind of roads that it is driving on. This is the real future of the autonomous vehicle: well-to-do suburbanites going from house to office. Will this play in cities?