Over the weekend, I ended up reading several recent articles painting a fairly bleak picture of the middle-term future of transportation. I thought I’d stitch them together in a way that helps me — and, hopefully, you — see how they relate to each other. Let’s start with the bedrock of transportation in the United States and Canada: the personally-owned car.
Patrick George, Jalopnik:
The Wall Street Journal has a new story out that’s a kind of overview of something we’ve covered extensively around these parts — that super-long car loans, often with very high interest rates, are the new normal in car buying. And buyers are having a hell of a time keeping up. It means that car loans stick around well into when some of these models need pricey repairs, or past their original owners, and they eat into more and more of our incomes.
This is obviously concerning for owners who may not truly be able to afford lengthy car loans, it’s also likely to collapse in a situation reminiscent of the mid-2000s subprime mortgage crisis.
Making matters worse is that automakers like Ford and Mitsubishi are discontinuing sales of family cars in North America and focusing on SUVs and crossovers.1 These replacements are bigger, more expensive to buy, more expensive to run, and often more expensive to insure. They’re also more dangerous, both to the occupants and the people they crash into.
And, speaking of safety, Peter C. Baker of the Guardian wrote about a deadly decade for pedestrians:
In 2010, the small community of specialists who pay attention to US road safety statistics picked up the first signs of a troubling trend: more and more pedestrians were being killed on American roads. That year, 4,302 American pedestrians died, an increase of almost 5% from 2009. The tally has increased almost every year since, with particularly sharp spikes in 2015 and 2016. Last year, 41% more US pedestrians were killed than in 2008. During this same period, overall non-pedestrian road fatalities moved in the opposite direction, decreasing by more than 7%. For drivers, roads are as safe as they have ever been; for people on foot, roads keep getting deadlier.
Ask a room full of safety experts about smartphones and you will get a mix of resignation, bemusement and contempt. “I tend not to buy the smartphone distraction stuff,” says Garrick, echoing nearly identical comments from just about everyone I talked to. “To me, it reads as shoving aside actually dealing with the relevant issues.” What particularly bothers him, he says, is how poorly thought out the distraction discourse tends to be. In the UK, Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Austria and Iceland, for example, pedestrian deaths occur at a per capita rate roughly half of America’s, or lower. Are we really to believe that the citizens of these countries are 50% less susceptible than Americans to distraction, by their phones or anything else? Plus, within the US, pedestrian death occurs disproportionately in neighbourhoods populated by people with low-incomes and people of colour. Is distraction really more endemic in those neighbourhoods, or among people driving through them, than it is in wealthier, whiter areas? Or is it more likely that these neighbourhoods are more likely to be criss-crossed by high-speed roads, and less likely to receive investment in transit interventions that protect pedestrians?
Baker also touches on partly- and fully-autonomous vehicles as a panacea for automobile-related maladies:
Of course, in time-honoured Silicon Valley tradition, this simple profit motive was quickly swaddled in all manner of high-flying rhetoric about saving lives (of car users and pedestrians alike), saving cities and transforming transportation as we know it. “Every year that we delay this, more people die,” Anthony Levandowski, then of Google, told the New Yorker in 2013. At a 2016 press event, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, warned journalists who expressed doubts about self-driving cars – like the type that Tesla plans to sell – that they had blood on their hands. “If, in writing something that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”
“There is simply a very good business reason for car companies to sell people a future where everything is better, especially when the way to get there is by purchasing a lot of cars,” says Peter Norton, perhaps the most prominent historian of how Americans think about traffic safety. As Norton pointed out, car manufacturers have long made a practice of stoking consumer dissatisfaction, and yoking it to utopian visions of the future in which cars of the future solve problems created by cars of the present. “I don’t think there’s any chance that autonomous vehicles will deliver us a safe future, and I don’t necessarily think the companies think so either. I think they think we’ll buy a lot of stuff. The safe future will recede before our eyes like a desert mirage.”
It is notoriously stupid to try to predict the success of future technologies. As I’ve written before, I strongly suspect that truly autonomous vehicles are decades out. What a Tesla can do today is remarkable — if not quite road-worthy yet. Waymo’s answer is even better, of course. But I’ll be stunned if, in the next few years, a car can drive itself from, say, the parking garage in my building through the Rocky Mountains in wintertime to Lake Louise without human intervention. Part of the trip? Sure. But the whole way — a truly autonomous vehicle? I have doubts.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that partially autonomous transport is solved soon for a limited set of uses. Something broader than fixed bus routes, and more along the lines of Waymo One, but for the rest of us. That would perhaps require us to purchase new cars equipped with expensive new technologies. Instead of owning these cars individually, though, we could share them with a Car2Go-esque service.2 Unfortunately, it’s hard to be optimistic about the success of something like that because Car2Go announced last month that they would be ending service in four big North American cities by the end of October, including Calgary. In its email to users, Car2Go blamed city policy, a poor economy, and increased competition. The first reason has been disputed by the city, the second is a possibility, and the third seems like a red herring — there are no competing car sharing services in Calgary, but we do have Uber, and it’s wildly popular.
Of course, “wildly popular” does not mean “a good business”. Car2Go said it was very popular in Calgary just last year. When it filed for its IPO earlier this year, Uber reported total losses of $7.9 billion between when it was founded in 2009 and the end of 2018. In the first quarter of 2019, they added another $1 billion to that tab; in the second quarter, they added a whopping $5.2 billion. Between 2009 and June 30 of this year, Uber has lost over $14.1 billion — an average of about $4 million per day, every day, for over ten years of operations. And those losses are overwhelmingly recent: in 2017, the company lost $2.2 billion; in 2018, $1.8 billion; in 2019, so far, $6.2 billion. All of that is without factoring in last month’s decision in California to classify drivers as employees instead of contractors, meaning that Uber will be obligated to pay minimum wage.
Is Uber a sustainable business over the long term? They are clearly planning to be, but they have to dig themselves out of a multibillion-dollar hole before we can sincerely have a discussion about the reasonableness of future viability. But if they, like Car2Go, are forced to retreat somewhat, it puts those who are reliant upon its services in a difficult position. Car sharing and ride sharing services mean that people may not need to own a car if they live in a moderately dense part of their city. They are a solution for the increasingly high financial and environmental cost of personal vehicle ownership.
But so is public transportation.
After reading all of these pieces and thinking this whole thing through, I keep winding up wondering what our cities would look like if we channeled the money we spend on Ubers and car sharing into public transit. What if venture capital firms funded trains and buses instead of autonomous vehicle startups? I recognize that’s not how venture capital firms operated because their incentive is in making money through risky betting — which is not necessarily the same thing as making cities better and safer to travel through. Public transportation also carries reduced risk for those who depend on it, as a public transit operator won’t simply end service in a city by giving a month’s notice and recalling all of its vehicles.
This is not an original argument, but it is one I was hounded by as I spent my weekend reading these articles.
As I wrote at the outset, this is a loose knitting-together of disparate strands of a complex conversation: what does transportation look like in cities of the future? Is it roads filled with individually-occupied privately-operated autonomous vehicles? I think it’s a fascinating technical puzzle and solution, but I’m struggling to find the practical appeal.