Archive | February, 2012

What the hell do you actually want?

27 Feb

Seriously, what do you want out of life?  How do you want to live?  Where do you want to live?

I get very frustrated when I read commentaries or hear people discussing ways to alleviate traffic or expand transit infrastructure as solutions to short-term problems.  People get into heated debates about HOW to go about “improving things”.  What the hell do we mean by that?  People are always coming up with solutions without ever stating what they are actually solving or explaining the desired effect.

As an example, consider this article from a  few years ago titled In Transportation and in Technology, Packets Beat Circuits (Part 2 here) by someone I greatly respect from Georgia Tech.  He is making an analogy of cars/transit to packet-switched/circuit-switched networks.  In this article Mr. Fleming concludes that cars are better than transit in Atlanta and similar cities.  He accepts that cars will dominate most cities  and we should “[d]eal with it, or move back to New York.”   He then proceeds to make many suggestions to help ease traffic. (Many of which are very good ideas).  However he never tells us why easing traffic is a good idea.  Easing traffic is not an end goal, it is a means to an end.  What kind of city is Mr. Fleming envisioning when he lays out his ideas?  One can only assume from his attitude towards transit that Mr. Fleming is attempting to realize some version of  Le Corbusier‘s Radiant City, a city built at the scale of the automobile with little need for walking.  Unfortunately the Radiant City utopia is even less likely to occur in Atlanta than improving walkability downtown.  Besides who wants to live in a place like that?  I actually like the idea of a walkable, person-oriented city and I’m just a country bumpkin from Rocky Face, GA.   The plan of traffic easing is short-sighted and does not consider long-term effects.  It is without vision.

A similarly flawed argument that we hear a lot in Atlanta, is that we should expand MARTA rail into the suburbs.  What will that accomplish?  How will spending billions of dollars on rail into the suburbs improve quality of life?  People who enjoy the suburban driving lifestyle sure aren’t going to be taking the train.  People who would prefer living in-town but have been priced out to the ‘burbs might take the train, but taking the train from the ‘burbs requires first driving to the train station.  Once I get in  my car, it’s just as easy (and a lot faster) to drive past the rail station and all the way into work.  Despite what people say about traffic, Atlanta’s highways are top notch.  15 lanes baby!!  All I’m saying is that we need some sort of  vision for how our city should look, and sending rail into the suburbs isn’t going to have any sort of big positive change.  Perhaps it would be better to improve the transit within the city first and add more affordable housing to get people moving back into town.  (This is actually happening via the Beltline and similar projects.)

Why do we need to fix traffic?  Do we need to fix traffic?  Why do we need to expand transit lines?  Do we need to expand transit lines? I’m going to spend a few minutes trying to explain the type of life that I would enjoy.  This is what the hell I want, not necessarily what others may want.  But when I discuss transportation planning and the effects of technology, this is the end goal that I have in mind.  You must begin with a destination in mind.

What the hell I want:

I want to know my neighbors.  I want to be able to walk to the grocery store. I want to be able to walk or bike to work.  I want to go to high school football games.  I want to be within 15 minutes of hiking in the woods.  I want good coffee.  I want to walk into my local pub and recognize the bar tender and meet up with friends unplanned. I want to be able to walk home after 3 pints.  I want some sort of night life until at least 3AM.  I want my future kids to be able to walk to school.  I want my future kids to be able to play in a park without needing me to drive them there.  I want to know that even though I haven’t tagged my kids with embedded GPS devices, that they will be safe, because my neighborhood/town/city is a safe place to be.  I want to go to the museum or symphony a few times a year.  I want a huge library with millions of books.  I want to eat at restaurants that are not chains.  But I like chains too.  I don’t want to stand in line for 20 minutes to buy groceries.  I want to get fresh bread/fruit/vegetables from the grocery store EVERY day.  I want public places to hang out that don’t require me to buy something.  I want to loiter.  I want to be able to meet up with friends without having to schedule a date.  I want a good mix of strangers and familiar faces.  It keeps things interesting yet familiar.

I want a little street life,

Charlottesville, VA

a little culture,

New York Public Library

and a little nature.

Piedmont Park, Atlanta

This is my wish list.  Others may want to live way out in the middle of God’s country and never see another living soul.  That’s cool by me.  Whatever you want, you need a goal in mind, otherwise how can you make “progress” towards it?

Notice in my rambling, I did not mention where to build a highway or a train stop.  I am not concerned here with the HOW, I am concerned with the WHAT.  What the hell do we actually want when we discuss expanding roads or transit?  What result are we trying to achieve?  Because simply making cars move faster or increasing population density are not goals, they are means to reach goals.  At least they should be.

Next time you hear some people arguing for traffic easing or expanded transit, ask them what the hell they really want.  Will that new highway really make your life better?  Will it help you achieve the dream life that you imagine for yourself? Will that new train stop help? If they can’t define a goal and draw a line between whatever they are proposing and reaching that goal, then they don’t deserve our attention.  Enough with the band-aid, temporary, short-sighted solutions.  Before we get into arguments over where to build the next exit ramp, lets step back and consider what we really want out of life, and will this change help us get there.

If anyone actually reads this, I would love to hear what the hell you really want.

Self-Driving Cars: ‘Freedom’ or ‘More of the Same’

2 Feb

That last post got quite a response.  It was really fun reading all the comments.  Thanks to everyone for keeping the conversation civilized and productive.

One recurring theme that kept appearing in the comments section was that of self-driving cars.  If self-driving, autonomous, driverless (whatever you want to call them) cars still seem like science fiction to you, they probably won’t seem that way for long.  I am not even going to make the argument about whether or not they are coming.  They ARE coming!  Google seems to have nearly perfected the technology behind it.   At this point, it is only a matter of sorting out the legalities of introducing millions of self-driving cars onto our roadways.

Just for fun, here is a short TED Talk on Google’s cars.  The technology is absolutely awe inspiring.

If we assume that these cars are coming, the next question is:  How will this change our driving habits and our lives?  I have two very different expectations of what will happen when Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and all the other big manufacturers start putting out self-driving cars.

First the optimistic expectation.  In the optimistic future, self-driving cars will provide a complete paradigm shift in the way we think about transportation.  If self-driving cars become the main form of transportation, there is no practical reason to own a personal car.  Think about it, when cars are in storage approx. 95% of the time, that is a wasted resource.  This is the reason that we require so much parking.  What if during that 95% of downtime, the cars were off handling other trips like driver-less taxis?  When you needed a car, you summon it and it appears Batmobile style within seconds, or at the worst a few minutes.

How great would that be?  You no longer have to worry about maintenance or parking and you get to split the cost of the car with everyone who uses it.  Parking would free up all over the city because it is no longer needed.   You don’t get stuck with a single car.  If you need a 7 person SUV, you get it.  If you need a pickup truck, you get it.  If you need a single passenger vehicle, you get it.   And since you aren’t tied to your car, you might even walk more.  Previously you would drive that 1 mile to the grocery store, now you may walk it and simply opt for a ride back.  The sunk cost of owning and operating a car would vanish.  You would only pay for what you actually use.  This might actually prompt alternative transportation use.  It is hard to justify taking the train, when I have already sunk 20 grand into my car.  If enough people exchange a few car trips for walking or transit, we may even see a return to more walkable communities.  This would, of course, lead to even more people choosing walking and transit.  I can really see some positive momentum coming from intelligently used autonomous vehicles.

Now for the pessimistic vision of the future.  Nothing changes.  It is the same model that we have now.  Every single person owns his or her own car.  We still have to store all those cars 95% of the time and the only real difference in the commute is that you can watch cartoons on the way to work instead of driving.  Granted safety would be greatly improved and maybe some increase in efficiency on the highway.  Although as long as some people are still driving themselves mixed in with the driver-less cars, not much efficiency can be gained.

What would really happen in this scenario is that urban sprawl would increase dramatically.  When people are deciding on where to buy a house, they are weighing cost per square foot against commute times.  People who currently tolerate a 45 min. trip to work in exchange for the 6000 square foot McMansion way out in the exurbs, can now really spread out.  Instead of driving 45 min. to work, you can move 2 hours away from work and sleep in your car on the way in each morning.  Hell, why not live 8 hours away and do all of your sleeping in your car. (OK maybe that is a little crazy)

 Each time a new mode of transportation is introduced (bikes, trolleys, trains, cars, highways, etc.)  our cities change shapes.  Make no mistake, self-driving cars will not be a simple improvement over our current system.  They will have a dramatic effect on the shapes of our cities.  Ultimately we will probably have a mix of both the pessimistic and optimistic views.  After all, what is pessimistic to me may be optimistic to someone else.  This is OK, as long as the net effect is an increased quality of life in the towns and cities where most of us live.

EDIT:  The blog Narrow Lanes has an interesting post on driver-less cars with more examples and a skeptical POV from someone who doesn’t want to lose the joy of driving by turning control over to machines.  It is worth a read.

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