I have just finished reading Dan Albert’s wonderful history of the car, entitled “Are We There Yet: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless.” I recommend that you spend some time with this excellent work of social, technological and cultural history.
As I read, I was struck by two significant facts. First: car makers make no profit building cars and haven’t for decades – car makers make their profits from financing the acquisition of cars. If Ford and GM – and all the rest – had to rely on selling what they make alone, the automobile industry would long ago have vanished in a cloud of smoke (fumes).
And second, we are at a pivotal moment in our national automobility as we move from owning cars – this is not happening at breakneck speed, but it is happening – to renting space and time with cars. Examples of this potentially critical shift in our national life can be witnessed in the rise of Uber and Lyft, and in the ongoing and now increasingly substantial investment in the R and D of driverless cars.
We face a sea-change ahead, but there is a hitch. Developing driverless cars is fairly easy – much of the technology has been around for quite a while. But developing driverless cars that are truly safe is not easy, and Albert warns that we cannot leave this work to the current automobile industry. They have a lengthy and quite wicked history of ignoring the safety of their products: the examples are legion, and really quite appalling.
To Albert’s credit, he does posit the right way to proceed with the development of driverless cars. And he leaves us with a substantial sense of skepticism about whether his plan will be implemented. Read the book to find out more – it is worth your time and effort.
I might add here that the ecological implications of continuing to point all of our resources at the manufacture of mobility, whatever its format, have to be carefully and thoroughly considered. The unintended consequences of our passion for the seeming freedom and license of cars has wrought a global catastrophe that we may or may not untangle. Driverless cars need to be weighed as a part of this unfolding dilemma.
As I was saying, all of this got me to thinking. For more than a century the automobile has been critical in defining the shape and form of our cities. Before cars, and also essential, streetcars shaped our cities. As I have said on these pages earlier, most American cities still retain vivid and clear evidence of streetcar urbanism – our Rochester certainly does. But the impact of cars on urban form has been far more powerful, and inescapable. In the 20th century, and now into the 21st, we have sacrificed almost everything about our urban environment, and our urban life, to cars. We have destroyed the older walkable and connected fabric of our metropolitan geography to loop roads and beltways, parking, expressways cutting across our neighborhoods, parking, a scattering of daily destinations in our lives whether work or school or leisure. We have sprawled across our landscapes in transformational fashion, and we are all still looking for a place to park.
Downtown in our town – a place to park.
Some of us have investigated the damage here, and it’s staggering, as in many other cities. Way over half of the land in our downtown is given to parking. But wait….
Suddenly, we don’t own cars anymore. If we want to go somewhere beyond our feet, or our bikes, we push a button and a driverless pod pulls up, whisks us to our destination, and later whisks us home again. And then the driverless pod goes away, on to its next call. Shocking perhaps, but maybe the pod picks up a few neighbors headed in the same direction. Now what – conversation?
No driveways. No garages. No on-street parking. No parking garages downtown, or surface lots. No parking lots at the mall. In fact, perhaps no mall. No strip centers – no strips of parking and stores.
Here it is – the public realm before we begin.
Here it is after we have worked on it for while:
Now we can reimagine our entire public realm: all of the old constraints are altered.
Major streets in Rochester, 1929.
Let’s assume for the moment that a driverless pod is 6.5 feet wide (length unimportant at the moment). And let’s assume that these pods can maneuver with laser-like precision. So I propose a lane width of 7.5 feet. With a lane in either direction, that means we need 15 feet of paving. Yikes!
My mostly quiet residential street, currently with one-sided parking, is about 30 feet wide. A nearby street with two driving lanes and two parking lanes (between these two we have covered most of the city) amounts to 40 feet. Think of it: that 40 foot wide street can now become just 15 feet wide.
And all of our garages can become “accessory dwelling units.”
I am reeling at the possibilities. I may have to go lie down. But instead, I will stop here to catch my breath and listen to your thoughts before I go on reinventing the city….