Marginal cost of transportation: robotaxis and sprawl repair

Strong Towns would like to introduce Neil Salmond as a new regular contributor. Neil is a renewable energy consultant from Vancouver, BC. He is a member and longtime participant in the conversation here at Strong Towns – you may know him as Neil21, which is also his Twitter handle – and he blogs at Stroad to Boulevard as well as other places. We enjoy his thoughts, insights and writing so much and are thrilled that he has agreed to share them more prominently here.

The most insidious result of the car-first development pattern is the constituency of car owners it creates. Once you own a car - and so mentally discount the cost of insuring, maintaining, fuelling the car - then every trip looks free. Political discussions and public investment decisions begin to assume that everybody comes with a machine; they conflate ‘driver’ with citizen, and relegate non-cyborg humans to a category of ‘other’, the ‘pedestrian’ who isn’t naturally considered first in site layout or public space design, but who must be ‘accommodated’ by so-called ‘complete’ streets and ‘extra’ features like crosswalks. Sidewalks are the original war on the car.

Paraphrasing Churchill, we shape our cities and then they shape us. This is what makes sprawl repair so difficult. Since it is nearly impossible to live in motordom without using a car for most daily needs; and nearly impossible to use a car for most daily needs without becoming obsessed with ensuring scarce congestion and abundant parking - how will we ever break the cycle?

The three answers are: education, example and technology.

Education comes from Strong Towns, from the CNU, from Streetsblog and the Atlantic; from everyone who reads and shares Jane Jacobs, Charles Montgomery, Duany, Speck, Walker and Mouzon; who shares Kunstler’s TED talk, quotes Leinberger’s 19 types and uses Minnecozzi’s yield metaphor. From the citizen who stops to ask themselves why that road widening really didn’t make any difference to her commute time after all; or why their only local housing choices seem to be single-family house or condo.

Examples start with Better Blocks, Portland’s intersection repairers and Lydon’s tacticals. They can be pushed by rewritten street designs, New York’s paint, planters, parklets and pop-up food trucks; and taken all the way to Placemakers’, DPZ and Dover-Kohl’s code rewrites. Developers setting an example by seeding new, complete neighborhoods, not a tacked-on single-use subdivision or business park.

Education and examples are great and important; they speak to the cultural and demographic shift underway, as the multiple economic and social failures of America’s suburban experiment become ever more obvious. But I also think that in the next decade they’ll get a supercharged boost from robotaxis.

Many urbanists really hate Google’s self-driving car, because they believe the stories told by the most naive techno-fetishists. Stories like streets full of robocars, safely nose-to-tail at 100mph and happily dancing past eachother at intersections. Stories like extra-exurban commuters happily breakfasting and working from their robotaxi during their two hour commute (and happily working some more on the two hours home).

These are naive because of the incrementalism of technology roll-out and because of those cultural and demographic shifts already underway.

Apart from the occasional highway convoy, the vision of nose-to-tail robocars is many decades out, if it ever happens at all. This new technology is not cheap, and so the asset will be sweated: robotaxis will not make just two commuting trips per day, and lie idle the rest of the time. They will not make rapid transit redundant either, for simple reasons of geometry and predictability: why wait ten minutes for a more expensive personal taxi, when you can walk to the transit stop and get the next train in two.

Instead robotaxis will be offered as a fleet service. The availability of robotaxis in a community will provide two great boosts to sprawl repairers. Firstly, the cost of insurance for human-driven vehicles within city limits will rise hugely. Secondly, parking lots and travel lanes will far more easily be removed as ownership declines. As the boomers die off, their car consumption will not be replaced.

“How many Jakriborgs is that?” is a common urbanist’s riposte large scale park-and-ride developments. Jakriborg is a new Swedish community, built adjacent to a rail line and designed as a complete town. It fits on just a few acres, about the scale of a large parking lot. Imagine any park-and-ride you know and picture, within the decade, a fleet of fifty robotaxis shuttling back and forth from cul-de-sacs to rapid-transit, while the parking lot is Jakriborg’d.

And to the fallacy of the mobile office, note that time spent commuting is still time not playing with the kids or time barbecuing. The Happy City has a heart-wrenching anecdote (page 62 of my edition) about a suburban mother who gets a call from her son’s school that he’s taken seriously ill: “her child was dying, she thought, and he was fifty miles away”. The cultural shifts above - and strongly evidenced by the astronomical land prices under walkable places - mark the beginning of the end of this dispersed city. Over the next century, America will rebuild herself around a model of neighborhoods: rural hamlets are a single neighborhood in the countryside; large cities are clusters of transit-connected neighborhoods.

As robotaxis are released into the wild - Las Vegas, with Tony Hsieh's downtown project, is likely to lead in my opinion - the cost of human driver insurance will rise while the cost of the batteries and lidars fall, and a cross-over point will come quicker than many expect (five years? easily in ten years). The next generation of local politicians can more easily quash complaints over parking-loss and get to retrofitting stroads to boulevards, and missing teeth lots to buildings.

I can’t wait.