Self-driving cars and cultural ownership of the street

A crash caused by Google’s autonomous vehicle creates a moment to think about the history and future of cars in cities

Urban planners ponder plazas with markets, public art, and al fresco wine bars. What was once a city parking lot is revitalized, as self-driving cars take themselves away, no longer demanding parking space in the city. Suburbanites anticipate cheap rides in self-driving Ubers. Insurers wonder about liability if autonomous vehicles (AVs) were to crash.

Google’s self-driving car did cause a crash recently. A minor prang with a bus at 2 miles per hour. It has been in crashes before, but this time it was at fault. “We clearly bear some responsibility”, was Google’s statement.

Imagine if Google’s car had hit a curly-haired child in San Francisco’s Mission District, walking with her dad outside the soccer field. Would it be considered an accident, as we describe most car crashes today? What if it parked itself by your favorite waterside café, ruining the view. What right does the robot have to be there?

Car culture in cities is a story of changing class interests, where, for a time, the privilege of the driver was extended to their car. 20th century cars enjoyed priority in planning, infrastructure spending, and practical immunity from liability for crashes. When we think about driverless cars separately from the people inside them, privilege for the car seems strange. It probably never made sense in the first place.

Cross when the walk sign is green

There’s an etymology of the term ‘Jaywalking’ available in an article on, here. “Jay,” apparently, was a derogatory term similar to hick, bogan, or redneck. A Jay was someone unaccustomed to the sophistication of city life in the 1920’s (and their new responsibility to not inconvenience cars).

According to the article, the term ‘Jay-Driving’, describing the boorish drivers invading the street scene, actually predates ‘Jay-Walking’. Cars in 1920s cities endangered children. They took space away from market stalls. Mayors erected memorials to victims. Drivers who crashed were considered murderers.

But in the 1920s and ’30s, drivers were a wealthier group than pedestrians. The social auto clubs and the car manufacturers made inexorable progress on their interests. Eventually, the car lobby enjoyed total victory, claiming public opinion and public policy for its own. The city street belonged to the automobile, and the pedestrian was banished to the sidewalk. Pedestrians were given designated places for crossing the street, and told to wait their turn. After all, how else was Gatsby to arrive in Long Island in time for his party?

Why we say ‘accident’ instead of ‘crash’

In the spring of 1992 a woman drove her car into Washington Square Park in New York. She killed 5 pedestrians and injured 27 others. The NY Times reported the next morning, “Renee Smuggs, a 20-year-old woman standing near the gates, was the first person hit. She was hurled about 20 feet into the air, did two somersaults in the air and fell on her head… .Like Bowling Pins”

A tragic accident. The driver never faced charges. Imagine if it was Google’s AV. Would Google face charges? What would public opinion be? If it’s not the same, what is the difference? What if, instead of a traffic accident, the scene was a scaffolding collapse on a building site? 5 construction workers killed and 27 injured. Would the worker’s compensation authority consider it a blame-free accident?

To paraphrase transport safety group, Transportation Alternatives: Before the labor movement, factory owners said “it was an accident” when their workers were injured. Before the movement to stop drunk driving, drunks said “it was an accident” when they crashed their cars. Planes don’t have accidents. They crash.

In most jurisdictions today, the driver is technically at fault in the case of a crash involving a pedestrian. They are rarely criminally liable, however, except when alcohol is involved. To say ‘accident’ lightens the blame on the actor. Cars “have accidents” because of the privilege of the driver and our perception of their rightful place on the street. This suddenly seems like nonsense when we consider autonomous vehicles. If a human-driven vehicle hits a man while he is crossing the street, we still ask him why he didn’t see the car. If an AV hits him, who do we sue?

The question of liability for damage caused by a self-driving car is complex. It’s still unclear who should be responsible if an AV were to hit a person. The Insurance Information Institute, a Californian industry group, thinks the AV’s manufacturer should retain liability. Volvo’s President, Håkan Samuelsson, actually agrees. In 2015 he said Volvo would assume liability for its AVs on the road. When we talk about cars without drivers, it’s clear the cultural protection of drivers no longer applies.

Infrastructure reflects our parents’ choices

Since the 1970s through today, in developed economies at least, “drivers” includes the middle class and the working class. Today’s drivers should be enjoying the infrastructure choices set in place for a 1950’s elite, and built over decades, for example, by Robert Moses in New York. But Moses’ open highways, built for his wealthy, white friends, were eventually defeated by a truism of traffic planning: More roads attract even more cars. An economist would describe this as induced demand.

Today, naturally, drivers still vote for roads and parking space. But wealthy people are increasingly living downtown, and they are pushing the cars out. Witness central London’s congestion charge system, the pedestrian squares along New York’s Broadway, and Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu. Parking space is losing ground, literally, to bike-share stations and farmers’ markets.

The car’s legacy infrastructure will take generations to undo, but momentum is clear in some towns already. London’s 2015 report on transport showed that central London’s morning peak will soon see more people cycling than in private cars. Individual leaders have achieved significant shifts in short time frames: Janette Sadik-Khan in New York and Jaime Lerner in Curitaba changed the shape of transport in their cities in single terms of administration.

The working class — now a class of drivers — is being left behind. Just as they were pushed to the sidewalk in the 1920s. Today, the working class is at the other end of a long, congested road to the suburbs. The bike-share systems proliferating around the world are predominantly used by the wealthy (even when they are subsidized for low-income users, as they are in New York). Planners must note that access to transit options becomes essential to economic opportunity when car commutes are impractical. Still better would be affordable housing downtown.

Planning tomorrow’s streetscape

The swing of public opinion from pedestrian to car, and back to pedestrian, is as much about culture and class as technology and urban design. Looking back from 2040, the 20th century may seem unusual in the history of the city street. A time when we used the term “accident” as if the driver had no role in the actions of their vehicle. A time when transit authorities measured policy choices by counting cars instead of people. A time when space was used for car parking instead of cafés.

In the future, it seems unlikely we will prioritize the movement of AVs over the activities of people. The privilege of the driver has been detached from the car. Transit options will need to be diverse and inclusive, so we don’t leave communities stranded in the suburbs. Urban planners and city governments today would do well to keep that in mind.

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