This week, I attended a conference about open data and open government. For those unfamiliar with the concepts, here's how well I listened. We all fund a ton of data collection through taxes but the results of that are often not publicly accessible or in a machine readable format (ie. easy to download and manipulate). Open government is the premise that there should be a more participatory and collaborative relationship between citizens and government. Open data can be a gateway to open government because people like Joe Minicozzi can then find information (such as property taxes) and transform it into a story that can then be shown back to government to guide better policy.

A couple weeks back, I helped put together this video on the subject because it's important stuff.

ANYWAY, at this conference we ended up in a discussion on transportation. How could transportation systems transform into "networked mobility solutions" through the use of open data and open government. You may be able to list off a few things immediately. With accurate data on where people are travelling when and how, we could model better routing for buses, for example. We could have a tighter feedback loop between citizens reporting road or transit problems and government response. Efficiency, essentially. We could become more efficient given faster, fuller information.

Then came the suggestions to marry the creative power and flexibility of private sector problem solvers with government innovators. Enter the driverless cars. What if the government opened up their data vault on exactly how many people travel from A to B and when? And THEN, instead of being blindsided by the next gamechanger in the market, what if governments invited proposals for driverless "mobility solutions" from anyone clever?

The room was fairly well split between people who are highly optimistic about new technology and those who are skeptical of shiny objects.

Since I know the Strong Towns community to have a healthy dose of techno-skeptism, but also a love of frugality and small solutions, I'd love to see where the conversation travels here.

Driverless Disruption

Admittedly, I spend very little time thinking about car technology because I rarely drive. In my mind, the more time I spend in a car, the more likely I am to die young. But I gather this is a hot topic for geeks of many stripes, so those of you who live on this turf, please pipe up.

Driverless technology is already available. It seems pretty inevitable to me that we're going to get some driverless action on the roads by the time my sight is failing me and I can't drive myself. Probably, far sooner.

What if everything from car culture to parking was radically altered? Photo by Gracen Johnson.

What if everything from car culture to parking was radically altered? Photo by Gracen Johnson.

Pretty much everything we talk about in our corner of the city-building world is correcting for the wreckage left by auto-domination. Driverless cars could potentially change the auto-culture and role of vehicles in our lives. What kind of impact might this have on the priorities and approaches of Strong Citizens?

I know we're not in the habit of predicting the future, but as a thought exercise I'm trying to prepare myself for ways that my thinking could be turned upside down. I would hope that my city-building philosophies today could withstand a major shock tomorrow.

Little Transit for Little Places

Where I see driverless technology having the biggest impact on the way I approach liveability in my neck of the woods is transit. We just don't have that many people here. Our province is under 800,000, mostly concentrated in three metro areas of about 100,000 each. It's almost impossible to get between these three cities without a car because we can hardly maintain a subsidized coach bus, let alone rail. Within those three cities, there are municipal bus services that are not what most would consider convenient. So everyone drives. I'm sure this is a familiar story.

For a long time, I used to wonder why we didn't just get smaller buses. Many people had asked that question before me and learned that the fleet needs to be flexible for peak hours and that the biggest expense is actually the driver. When I started digging into the significant barriers to transit here, I'm ashamed to say I more or less gave up temporarily and decided we need walkability first. Ignoring the problem is not a great solution though. There are a lot of people trapped in unwalkable parts of town with poor transit options.

Now, I don't want to be putting bus drivers out of business, but could driverless systems finally be the way to scale transit down?

Maybe. That answer is not so important as the rabbit hole it has pulled me down. The idea of having a functioning transit system would seriously change the outlook for my remote and low density home.

Implications

And this is where I wonder how we approach driverless potential as a community of city builders. How would this change the rule of engagement for us and the underlying assumptions we trade in?

Maybe this driverless talk is just hype and I'm speaking in extreme hypotheticals. But I think it's worth asking: if motorized transportation were cheaper, easier, more pleasant and convenient than ever - if it were electrified to boot, where do we stand?

Do driverless cars actually make any difference to a Strong Town?

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I apologize if these questions have already been explored in Chuck's new book, A World Class Transportation System. It's next on my list to read!