Commentary: Automated Cars Will Not Cure Traffic Woes

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Conceptual rendering of a streetcar and bike lanes adding capacity to an existing roadway without negatively impacting automobile traffic. Rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Conceptual rendering of a streetcar and bike lanes adding capacity to an existing roadway without negatively impacting automobile traffic. Rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Critics such as Randal O’Toole (see his commentary, “Cars Are the Future of Urban Transportation,” previously published on the Rivard Report) are continually predicting that mobility options such as public transportation will one day vanish into obscurity.  He makes the claim that automated cars will make roadway congestion “go away.”

On the contrary, congestion is not going away. Congestion of all sorts continues to increase every year, especially as a function of the ongoing population growth of our state. The good news is that, working together, we now have an opportunity to manage the rate at which roadway congestion increases relative to population. Roadway congestion is as much if not more of a function of land use, as it is other capacity challenges. The location of homes, jobs, and services, and how they are arranged relative to one another, create our need and indeed, our desire, to drive to wherever we have to go.

The assertion that automated cars will make congestion go away is, in the simplest of terms, unfounded. In fact, one could assert that these cars, if they work the way O’Toole suggests, would actually increase automobile travel due to the increased ease and convenience they could bring. This principle works the same for public transit: when it is easier and more convenient, ridership increases.

The concept being supported in this assertion is that vehicles could travel in “platoons” and, therefore, closer together, which would increase roadway capacity without additional roadway. It sounds great and could actually work if we are willing to invest in modifications to infrastructure and dramatically alter the law.

Driverless Car of the Future, advertisement for “America’s Electric Light and Power Companies,” Saturday Evening Post, 1950s. Credit: The Everett Collection.

Courtesy / The Everett Collection

Driverless Car of the Future, advertisement for “America’s Electric Light and Power Companies,” Saturday Evening Post, 1950s. Credit: The Everett Collection.

To ensure safety in such a regime, all cars and roadways would have to be an integrated automated system that is able to adapt to various conditions such as climate, obstructions and accidents. As of 2012, there were about 20 million registered vehicles and over 300,000 miles of roadway in the state of Texas alone. Nationally, these numbers are 250 million and 4 million respectively, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ 2014 report.  In either case, replacement and retrofit would be a daunting and quite expensive task. 

As an alternative, systems that could be automated on some roadways and not others would decrease driver responsibility, experience, and attention (don’t text and drive), making roads less safe. With automated cars, we would also be okay with traveling further on longer commutes, which would be supportive and further enable inexpensive, low-quality, high-profit suburban sprawl.  In addition, an automated car could actually operate as a taxi or run errands for you.  So the eight or so hours most of us are at work, the automated car could do other things for us, adding further to traffic and congestion, and placing greater wear on our publicly funded roadways. 

If technology is easier to use, we will use it more, instead of as much as we currently do – think cell phones or computers. Our current automated travel option (public transit, albeit with a human driver) allows the rider to do or think about other things, just like automated cars would do for riders. In that case, transit riders tolerate a longer, though less stressful commute time just as an automated car rider would.

How much space does your main mode of transportation take up? Courtesy image.

How much space does your main mode of transportation take up? Photo courtesy of the Cycling Promotion Fund.

Another of O’Toole’s assertions is that community is no longer geographically based due to the internet. Mobile devices and the internet have revolutionized everything, particularly the way we interact with each other and our environment.  This is objective. 

I would argue though, that these tools have actually come to facilitate real social interaction better than ever. Indeed, there are some who never have to leave their room because of the internet, but personally, my social experience has been dramatically enhanced with social media and other web-based tools.  I can find out what is happening and where people are, get a Lyft (or Uber), figure out when the next bus arrives and how to get to where I need to go, which is all highly geographic. 

In all reality, most people do want community.  They want to be social.  If this were not the case, downtown San Antonio would not get flooded with people after the Spurs win a playoff game, Fiesta would not be attended by hundreds of thousands of residents, people would not go to church, and so on. We often find ourselves trying to invent ways to interact in person with other people; to see and be seen. This is something also achievable through how we assemble our built environment. Where homes, jobs, and services are placed and how they are arranged relative to one another can offer opportunities for us to interact more organically without traveling alone in our cars as much or at all if we so choose.

San Antonio is unique. We are not Portland, and we are not “O’Tooland.” As a native and committed resident, I take pride in our individuality. I also love visiting other cities, in part, to understand small ways that I can bring diverse solutions back to our great city.  Indeed, we should look to best practices across the nation for implementing changes that help us to improve our community in ways that benefit all our neighbors, and find meaningful ways to adapt those principles to this place, geographically and culturally.    

Our city has been extremely successful and prosperous in the last decade.  Anywhere this occurs in the world, it results in people “wanting a piece.” It intrigues and inspires people, and we should welcome this. San Antonio will be home to 1 million additional residents by 2040, which is the equivalent of adding the population of Austin. We should be actively looking for ways to make room for everyone and move them around, rather than hanging our hat on automated cars and hoping for diminished congestion. 

Congestion will not diminish, and roads will never be wide or abundant enough to handle all of our ever-growing mobility needs.  We don’t need to radically change every community and neighborhood to prepare for this growth, but we do have plenty of opportunities in San Antonio to welcome and accommodate our new residents, which will include our children and grandchildren, and make sure they can get where they need to go without making the rest of us worry about them ever driving in their very own car next to us on our freeways.

Note: This commentary reflects my views as a proud native and resident of San Antonio and my own expert opinion related to transportation and planning in our region.

*Featured/top image: Conceptual rendering of a streetcar and bike lanes adding capacity to an existing roadway without negatively impacting automobile traffic.
Rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

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9 thoughts on “Commentary: Automated Cars Will Not Cure Traffic Woes

    • How have those elevated freeways worked out for those homes and local businesses that are literally in their shadows? In pretty much every U.S. city, elevated freeways have sucked the value out of adjacent properties because few people desire to live next to one, all while facilitating the negative effects of sprawl that Jason explained better than I could. In San Antonio, particularly, homes that still stand beside I-10, I-35, I-37, and Loop 410 are deteriorating because investment in these properties is for naught. Either no one wants to buy these existing homes due to the noise and pollution, or TxDOT will come in and buy them out to add more lanes to a never-ending cycle of induced demand. There is enough research out there that proves expanding freeways has never been, nor ever will be, a sustainable solution to growing traffic congestion. Now, if only our leadership would learn this….

    • Unfortunately, no. For one thing, elevated freeways are prohibitively expensive (probably the most expensive transit option possible). And they don’t allow for or encourage land use below them, save for the occasional parking lot. Also, as you see around our major interchanges, there’s a huge amount of space and infrastructure required to bring cars up to a second level. And when you expand lanes, all of that has to be reconfigured. Really, from a perspective of cost, construction time, and land use, elevated right of way is really a last option.

  1. Great article Jason.. San Antonio is a large and diverse population. I count myself among a large minority of the population that is looking for dense, transit orientated development (including enhanced bus, bike, ped and potentially rail options). I’m hoping to see some more true BRT solutions put in place as a stop gap until we can get rail in the city.

  2. I never said it would cure congestion, I’m saying it would make people not care that they are in congestion. I’m watching movies, and playing video games while smoking a bowl… What traffic, i turned my windows off!

  3. Great article, but several thoughts come to mind.

    First, San Antonio is not Portland, or Austin, San Francisco, Dallas, New York, or any other city. We do have our uniqueness. At the same time though, we aren’t really as unique as we might think we are. We’re pretty much like Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Atlanta, and the list goes on. A city built on low-density, single-use development patterns that is trapped into auto-dependence. San Antonio and every other city that pre-dates WW II were not always like this, they were transit, cycling and walking cities. And, contrary to so many who say it’s impossible, they could be again.

    Second, this article, the responses to this article, and similar articles and responses on The Rivard Report show that there are people who want a different future. However, I’m beginning to recognize that getting there requires organization, similar to Transportation Alternatives in New York. I’m not discounting Bike Texas or other advocacy groups that operate in San Antonio, but I’m not aware of a local organization advocating for walking, cycling, transit, and the land-use/development changes needed to make alternative transportation modes the preferred choice to the private automobile. Is there such an organization in San Antonio, and if not, is this the time?

    • Great article Jason. ” I’m not aware of a local organization advocating for walking, cycling, transit, and the land-use/development changes needed to make alternative transportation modes the preferred choice to the private automobile”. There are many people who feel this way, myself included. Right now a group of professionals from many fields are trying to start a local CNU Chapter. If you are not familiar with CNU visit their site (http://www.cnu.org/). I believe their charter would align with what you are advocating. Currently we are in the process of creating a mailing list, if you are interested please send an e-mail to cnusatx@gmail.com

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