Sunday, March 7, 2010

Smart cars will save us all

The Denver Post's Chuck Plunkett has a habit of getting bamboozled by the Cato Institute's Randall O'Toole on transportation issues.  Last year, Plunkett bought into O'Toole's argument that private cars were more fuel efficient than light rail.  Today, he repeats O'Toole's claims that mass transit is dying and that hyper-intelligent driverless cars are the answer to our problems.  Let me just address a few points.

Despite claims that ridership at new transit lines is rising, per capita use of transit has been getting smaller for years.
That's a silly use of statistics.  If ridership is rising, it's rising.  If per capita use is declining, that simply means that the area's population is growing faster than light rail ridership.  That's hardly an indictment of light rail.  It just means that the areas near light rail stations are probably harder for new residents to move into because they're expensive because, you know, people want to live near light rail stations.

Then Plunkett goes on to extol the virtues of driverless cars:
Using the lightning-fast reflexes of robots, driverless cars would shoot along at high speeds, instantaneously avoid slowdowns and thereby revolutionize existing roadways to quadruple their capacity — even during rush hour.
Okay, let's just stipulate that the technology that can steer a car and make judgments to avoid accidents and is affordable and trustworthy enough for people to buy it will be available within the next thirty years.  (I doubt it, but okay.)  Would such a technology actually be better than a human driver?  Do we really have traffic jams today because people aren't skilled or self-interested enough to avoid slow-downs?

DP: But the first time there is a glitch and there is a big pileup, no one will trust them.
RO: There wouldn't be a pileup. The first car might have an accident, but all the others would detect it and go around it.
How is that different from what human drivers already do?  And we still have traffic, by the way.

And then O'Toole explains the problem of mass transit -- upkeep costs:
Look at New York City and Chicago. They're looking at spending tens of billions of dollars to rebuild their systems. In most cases, that's money they don't have. Almost all the transit accidents you've heard about in Washington, D.C., have been due to maintenance problems. In 2002, they projected they would need $12 billion over the next decade to refurbish, and they only got like $1.5 billion.
Yes, mass transit is costly, unlike cars, which are free.  No, wait, roads cost money, too, don't they?  And cars cost money and require lots of maintenance, only those costs are borne directly by consumers.  And transit accidents?  How many more accidents are caused by private cars?  Who pays those emergency room costs, especially when the drivers don't have health insurance?

So why not intelligently plan some communities where people don't really need cars to get around?
Polls show that about 20 percent of Americans want to live in a LoDo [lower downtown Denver], and so you make that available, you're going to attract those kinds of people. They will drive less. But once you saturate the demand, what cities have had to do is start subsidizing [the extra capacity]. Once you start subsidizing it, then the people who start moving in to these transit-oriented developments are not the kind of people who want to live car-free lives. So it's really important that you have lots of parking in these developments, or the vacancy rates are really high.
WTF?  Why do cities have to subsidize anything if demand is saturated?  Why can't it just be a popular area with high rents?  I have no idea if what O'Toole is describing is true, but if it is, it's pretty bizarre, and it sounds like an argument for better city planning rather than just building more parking spots for intelligent cars.

One other quick point: It's kind of weird for someone who keeps writing books and giving interviews about how inefficient, costly, and dangerous mass transit is to then complain than not enough people are using it.


Lori said...

I would love to see some communities developed AROUND light rail, but light rail inserted into existing communities is a pain.

I think combined with redevelopment of thrashed downtown areas, light rail would be a cool thing...but then, unless you have an extensive light rail system, how long would it take to essentially pay for itself, let alone become profitable and NOT need subsidizing?

For example, I loved the Metro in DC...but the light rail that exists in Phoenix is not worth much to me, and caused a lot of problems while it was being built, and with a hefty price tag.

Seth Masket said...

Lori, a couple of points. First, I think it's unrealistic to expect mass transit to turn a profit. If it were profitable, private companies would probably be doing it already. Indeed, private companies have played a large role in killing mass transit in places like LA because they thought they could do better by selling cars and gasoline. By definition, mass transit is providing public goods -- affordable transportation, a decline in road traffic, fewer auto fatalities, less air pollution, etc. These things collectively benefit everyone even if there's not many people who would be willing to pay market value for them. That's generally something that will need to be subsidized by government.

Also, yes, inserting light rail into an existing community can be disruptive. But it should be thought of as not just affecting the current community, but how that community will be structured 25, 50, or 100 years from now. Phoenix will likely continue to grow substantially in the coming decades. Light rail encourages more dense development, which means more walkable communities, healthier people, successful local businesses, safer streets, etc.

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