A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology.

Auto critics such as Brad Meacham (see his commentary, “Changing How We Get Around U.S. Cities,” here) are continually predicting the death of the automobile and growing use of mass transit and other alternatives for urban travel. In fact, all of the reasons that have made cars the transport of choice for more than 90% of urban passenger travel remain as strong as ever today, and will be even stronger in the future as automobiles become more automated.

America and the world have been transformed by transportation improvements that have made mobility faster, less expensive, and more convenient. Streetcars were a major improvement over walking, automobiles were a major improvement over streetcars, and self-driving cars will be a major improvement over ordinary cars because they are faster, cheaper, and more convenient.

Compare auto travel with modern transit, for example. Americans spend about 25 cents per passenger mile on driving, and all federal, state, and local subsidies to driving add up to about a penny per passenger mile. Public transit fares also average about 25 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies to bus riders average 88 cents per passenger mile while subsidies to light rail averages $1.84 per passenger mile.

Meacham is correct that the fiscal reality behind transportation will soon set it. But if we end all subsidies to transportation, auto driving costs will increase by 4% while transit fares triple or quadruple. That’s not going to do much to discourage driving.

Cars are also faster than transit. The average speed of cars in cities is about 30 to 40 mph, while the average speed of transit is about 15 mph. Moreover, the door-to-door convenience of cars can be matched by transit only for people who are willing to dramatically limit their lifestyles to homes, work, and entertainment that happens to be on transit lines.

Auto speeds are impeded by congestion that has become a major urban problem partly because urban planners have deliberately failed to relieve congestion believing (as Meacham does) that building more roads merely “induces” more traffic. Their implicit assumption is that people shouldn’t be traveling.

The truth is that anything that increases the speed or reduces the cost of mobility generates huge economic benefits. Somehow, to planners, it makes more sense to spend money on transportation projects that do nothing to increase mobility than to spend on projects that “induce” large increases in travel.

Congestion as a problem, however, is going away. Automated features in cars on the market today, such as adaptive cruise control, can increase the capacity of roads by as much as 50%. Road capacities will increase further when fully self-driving cars enter the market in a few years.

Meacham stated that “people are hungry for community.” The reality is that communities are no longer geographically based; thanks to the Internet and other telecommunications, we can enjoy communities with people all over the world. When it comes time to actually meet those people, cars are one of the best ways to reach them.

The automobile made transit almost completely obsolete. Self-driving cars, combined with car sharing, will finish the job. People such as Meacham who want more transit are living in the past.

 *Featured/top image: A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology. Courtesy image. 

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Randal O'Toole

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of "Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It." Email Randal at rot@cato.org.