The Harvard University sociologist Lant Pritchett has proposed a sort oftaxonomy of social change that I find applicable to changing dominant transportation paradigms, which are really social paradigms. The four stages in the sequence might be labeled thusly: Silly, Controversial, Progressive, and Obvious. When applied to the the idea of bicycles serving as transportation in New York City, the stages of opinion have played out something like this:
Silly: It’s New York, you’d have to be crazy — or a messenger — to ride a bike. As more people began to do it, the tone shifted to:
Controversial: Bikes are dangerous, pedestrians are getting hurt, they will make traffic worse by removing space for cars. As these scenarios in turn failed to materialize, a new strand of critique began to surface:
Progressive: Biking proponents are nothing but an elitist, Copenhagenizing cabal trying to take over the city and turn us all into velocipede-loving socialists.
We would now seem to be entering the “Obvious” phase of the sequence, in which dissenters are spending less time arguing over the desirability or wisdom of the bike share program (which, it should be noted, enjoys the support ofmore than 70 percent of the citizenry) than they are over the precise location of bike infrastructure, and its day-to-day operation. The tone of this dissent has given it the characteristics of a classic NIMBY response — or perhaps, given New York City’s unique urban geography, a NOMB (Not On My Block) response.
I’d say we should all be well past the stage where the benefits of easy access to bicycles is “Obvious.” But maybe NYC will help get us there.
At Google, I am working with a world-class team of engineers to turn science fiction into reality.
Google’s vast computing resources are crucial to our technology. Our cars memorize the road infrastructure in minute detail. They use computerized maps to determine where to drive, and to anticipate road signs, traffic lights and roadblocks long before they are visible to the human eye.
Our cars use specialized lasers, radar and cameras to analyze traffic at a speed faster than the human brain can process. And they leverage the cloud to share information at blazing speed.
Our self-driving cars have now traveled nearly 200,000 miles on public highways in California and Nevada, 100 percent safely. They have driven from San Francisco to Los Angeles and around Lake Tahoe, and have even descended crooked Lombard Street in San Francisco. They drive anywhere a car can legally drive.
I’d love to take a ride in one. And know more about how many glitches, incidents, and outright crashes the prototypes have experienced. But Thrun is right about the promise such cars offer, and lays out a few I hadn’t thought of:
Take today’s cities. They are full of parked cars. I estimate that the average car is immobile 96 percent of its lifetime. This situation leads to a world full of underused cars and occupied parking spaces.
Self-driving cars will enable car sharing even in spread-out suburbs. A car will come to you just when you need it. And when you are done with it, the car will just drive away, so you won’t even have to look for parking.
Self-driving cars can also change the way we use our highways. The European Union has recently started a program to develop technologies for vehicle platoons on public highways. “Platooning” is technical lingo for self-driving cars that drive so closely together that they behave more like trains than individual cars. Research at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that the fuel consumption of trucks can be reduced by up to 21 percent simply by drafting behind other trucks. And it is easy to imagine that our highways can bear more cars, if cars drive closer together.
Last but not least, self-driving cars will be good news for the millions of Americans who are blind or have brain injury, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Tens of millions of Americans are denied the privilege of operating motor vehicles today because of issues related to health or age.
I like the idea of a car just showing up when you need it, and leaving when you hop out. And reducing traffic and parking congestion would be nice. But I also think it’s critical that we do more to get out of cars, and learn to walk and bike more, as well as use mass transit.
If a Google car simply extends the Era Of The Automobile rather than serving as one key piece in the radical transformation of our transportation culture, then I don’t think Google is doing us that big a favor. But it is an excellent example of how technology, if developed and applied with wisdom, holds out hope that we can at least ameliorate some of the worst problems that humanity has managed to inflict on itself and the planet.
I mainly ride my bike and try to ignore that question. But when Washingtonian magazine called me up and asked me if I wanted write an article about traffic, I think I surprised them a bit by saying: “Absolutely.”
The reason is that Washington’s horrific traffic is a classic example of a problem that everyone wants to confront, that has a rational solution, and yet politics and poorly calculated, perceived self-interest make that solution very unlikely. Just my sort of story, in other words, and I took the opportunity to explain just how bad things will get, and why the solution (if we are rational; I know, I’m crazy) makes all sorts of sense.
Here’s the intro (and you can read the whole thing here):
Last August, a 911 operator took a desperate early-morning call. A man, on the way to Washington Hospital Center with his pregnant daughter, was trapped on DC’s New York Avenue by a complete traffic lockup following a fatal collision between a tractor-trailer and a dirt bike. “My daughter is having a baby!” the man shouted. The operator tried in vain to direct the gridlocked minivan to a fire station. By the time emergency crews reached the vehicle, working their way through the obstacle course of idled cars, the baby had been born in the passenger seat.
Mother and newborn daughter turned out to be fine. But surviving the great roulette wheel that’s set spinning every day by the Washington traffic Fates can be a soul-sapping experience for anyone. With painful frequency, drivers are cast into the First Circle of Hell, which is where those who have committed the sin of hoping they’ll journey uncontested spend what seems like an eternity. It can happen for no discernible reason. It can happen when someone texting clips another car. It can happen when there’s an act of God, such as last year’s Snowmageddon or August’s “just reminding you the East Coast has tectonic plates, too” earthquake.
The reason is simple: There are way too many cars on the roads. There are a zillion unsurprising reasons this is true—a growing population, too many car commuters (64 percent of them solo), too many jobs located where workers don’t live (more people in Virginia and Maryland commute to work in another county than residents of any other place in the country), a lack of long-range planning and coordination among the local governments involved, and inadequate transit options, to name just a few. Or, as Dorn McGrath Jr.—professor emeritus of geography and urban and regional planning at George Washington University and a longtime denizen of the area’s transportation planning wars—sums it up: “It is pure foolishness aggravated by governmental fragmentation and, occasionally, political indifference.”
As a result, Washington has been elevated to a dubious status: a regular presence at the top of national traffic-congestion rankings. Telling drivers this is like telling a person standing in a downpour that weather statistics indicate the area is prone to rain. But the ugly numbers are worth a quick review.
In September, Washington topped the charts—yep, numero uno—in the 2011 Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Report. The data showed that the average Washington driver loses 74 hours a year to traffic congestion (in 1982, Washingtonians were delayed only 20 hours a year). That’s almost two work weeks vaporized behind the wheel, a waste that costs us an average of almost $1,500 a year in fuel and lost earnings potential. It also means that the time we spend in bumper-to-bumper conditions is more than twice the national average. Those whiny Los Angeles drivers who always think they have it the worst? They lose a mere 64 hours a year to traffic delays.