I’ve already gone on record saying that I generally like self-driving cars. I lean towards the techno-utopian side of things, and so a technology that can allow people to cut down on car ownership, while still being able to affordably enjoy the benefits of occasional car use seems to me to be the perfect way to make a (mostly) car-free lifestyle available in cities that were built primarily with the private automobile in mind. People can walk, cycle, and take public transit for most of their errands, while being secure in the knowledge that if those options are ever inadequate, they can always call a self-driving cab to pick them up for far cheaper than a manually-driven taxi ever could.*
There is a critique of self-driving cars from the more techno-skeptic left, however, that I haven’t really addressed yet. This is most commonly expressed as a simple phrase: “We already have such thing as a self-driving car. It’s called a bus.” People espousing this perspective argue that we should focus on improving public transportation services based on existing technologies, because initially expensive high-tech alternatives are of little value to the underprivileged. Self-driving cars, or Google’s w-fi equipped buses, they argue, are just a distraction which will mainly benefit rich people who already have access to transportation.
This argument is not a bad one. A future transportation system which uses self-driving vehicles to undermine the prevalence of personal car ownership definitely has social risks. If governments choose to support these vehicles rather than more conventional mass-transit options, then it’s nothing less than a gentrification of mobility. We have already seen something like this occuring in San Francisco, where chartered buses taking high-tech workers to their suburban corporate campuses are crowding out regular city buses which the city’s less privileged classes depend on. Whether our future transportation system depends on buses, self-driving cars, bicycles, or anything else, we need to make sure that governments continue to support options which some option which is comfortable, safe, convenient, and affordable for the poorest members of any given society. A free public system is one example of a policy that could help get people out of their cars without throwing the poor under the bus.
While it is a reason to think carefully about the kind of transport policies we support, however, these concerns are not reasons to reject fancy high-tech options out of hand. We are currently in a cultural battle over sustainable transportation. And, given that Jeremy Clarkson continues to attract public sympathy even after he assaults a colleague on set, I’m afraid that we’re losing.
For people who can afford to have options, the way they choose to travel is about much more than the simple utilitarian attributes of cars, buses, or bicycles. It is also about identity. Why else would anybody buy a sports car? Most people’s daily commutes are congested, meaning that a fancy car is no more fun to drive, and unless you live in Germany, there will likely be no opportunity at all to drive it at its top speed without risking a massive traffic ticket. Like clothing, means of transportation are fashion statements. People buy them because they “turn heads”.
In popular consciousness, then, if a Ferrari is the equivalent of a tuxedo; a BMW is the equivalent of a business suit; and a minivan is the equivalent of some nice but casual weekend-wear, then what is a bus pass? At best, it’s an outfit assembled from the local second-hand shop. I’m not defending this view. Buses should get a lot more respect than they do, and there are lots of successful people that ride the bus. But we need to acknowledge that these cultural story-lines are real, and that they have a real impact. Ask most habitual drivers to describe to you the interior of a city bus, and even if they have never been on a bus before, they will probably tell you all kinds of horrible-sounding things about rude drivers, filthy seats, and sketchy-looking fellow travellers. Even if the bus isn’t actually like that (and most aren’t, for the record), choosing to ride a bus rather than drive a car has implications for people’s identity.
This does not mean that we should give up on trying to convince the middle classes to take public transit. Public transit has a very important role to play in making our transportation system more just and sustainable. But we’ve been trying to do this since congestion first became a major problem in the 1960s, with very little success. Do you really think we are going to change deeply-held cultural views about transport in the next few decades?
I say “the next few decades”, because that is the time scale we’re talking about when we talk about solving the problem of climate change. During that time, We have to get the middle classes out of their cars. Transportation contributes 13 percent of global carbon emissions, which, incidentally, are causing Antarctica and Siberia to literally fall apart. Miami and Bangladesh are probably already doomed. We can’t afford to wait for a cultural revolution in which the majority of first-world commuters give up their materialism and embrace public transit. We have to work with what we’ve got.
That means that we have to embrace new forms of sustainable transportation that fit with people’s existing life-styles. Self-driving cars and private luxury commuter buses have the potential to be that. High-speed rail allows people to make intercity and even international trips without resorting to air travel, which is massively polluting. These things are actually viable options for the millions of people who will never take a bus. This is a bit of a compromise solution. Gentrification is always dangerous, whether it affects land or modes of transportation, and it has to be managed carefully in both cases. But we can’t make saving the planet contingent on our social and economic justice agenda, because that agenda will be meaningless when the full effects of climate change start to hit home. We need to act now, and act aggressively, even if it means taking some risks with our other political concerns. So the answer, I think, is all of the above: More, and cheaper buses, but also a few fancy high-tech alternatives. At least for the near future.
*Yes, this has some pretty important implications for labour relations. I’ve addressed them here.