On Autonomy

Like many who watch developments in transportation, urban design, and particularly the areas where they overlap, I’ve been following the self-driving story. Here are a few of my thoughts.

First, let me say from the start that I’m in favor of ANYTHING that makes our roads less deadly to the vulnerable user, whether on foot or on bike. However, I think that waiting for the autonomous car will mean many more will be sacrificed in the name of transportation. What we should be doing right now is redesigning our transportation infrastructure and promoting alternatives to personal motor vehicle traffic.

Currently, many of our roadways are overdesigned for the speed limits posted. In fact, that speed limit is adjusted up or down based on how fast 85% of the drivers are going, regardless of that posted speed. So when we make the road wider and straighter in the interests of “safety,” we are in effect giving the motoring citizen the privilege of resetting that speed limit. Sure the road is now marginally safer for those encased in a metal box, but for vulnerable users it just became exponentially more dangerous. Furthermore, by enhancing the perception that the road is now faster, we encourage more drivers to take it, moving rapidly toward congestion once more. Each time this cycle plays out, we take away from the vulnerable citizen who chooses to walk or pedal to her/his destination.

And what of that final destination? Here in the US, the motoring public has acquired the right to free (or highly subsidized) storage of their metal box, we design and legislate parking requirements. Never mind that for 60 – 80% of the day, those spots stand vacant, waiting for someone to fill the lot. Not a very sustainable use of space in a growing city.

Now I’m sure that some motorist reading this blog will come out with the tired, old “bikes don’t pay road taxes, so they shouldn’t be on the roads” theme. While it is true that we don’t burn fossil fuels and thereby pay gas (I.e., road) taxes, most of us do own cars that we drive from time to time so we DO pay gas taxes. Furthermore, it’s a myth that the gas taxes pay for the roads; if they did, we’d all be traveling on scraped dirt. No, the bulk of road money comes from income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and all the other little dings that the various levels of government put into our disposable income. I would further suggest that riding our bikes helps to keep overall health costs lower, saving you (or your employer) a few bucks on health insurance and doctor visits. And that subsidized storage of your vehicle mentioned above? Twelve to fifteen bicycles can fit in the same space as your SUV land yacht. I suggest, therefore, that even without the gas tax, riding a bicycle is a fiscal plus to society as a whole (and yes, to me as an individual.)

So bring on your autonomous vehicles. Just make sure they’re equipped with robotic arms so that they can flip off cyclists who will still be on the road. Wouldn’t want to lose that privilege, now would we?

Roll on!


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