The Great Self Driving Car Conspiracy

A recent piece by Rebecca Solnit makes a thought provoking general thesis. Vehicles we don’t have to drive already exist in the form of transit and we should ditch autos altogether. She goes on to blame technology companies for lots of things including putting more cars on the road.

Alissa Walker states it’s wrong headed to blame technology. We can discuss this angle another time but I want to focus on something Walker says about Solnit’s disdain for the tech shuttle buses:

First there’s the conspiracy that Google and Uber are trying to put more cars on the road.
Solnit — “Apple, Tesla, Uber, Google and various auto manufacturers’ pursuit of driverless cars is an attempt to preserve and maybe extend private automobile usage. The rise of new ways of hailing taxis and the problematic companies Lyft and Uber has given a younger generation more ways to stay in private one-party-per-vehicle transit and added fleets of new vehicles to already congested cities.”
And then that the tech industry is somehow complicit in this plot by sabotaging public transit:
Solnit — “The privatized shuttle buses thundering up and down San Francisco streets (and sometimes getting stuck on the steep ones) have been another sign that big tech takes little interest in enhancing public transit.”

Ohh that’s interesting. I saw the above phrases from Walker and my mind immediately jumped to the GM streetcar conspiracy theory. I don’t think Solnit is really hinting at a conspiracy, rather just corporate self interest, but it’s a great jumping off point for discussion.
Those of you who have been reading for a long time know that I’m not a conspiracy theorist with the streetcar topic. I believe that it was regulation and opportunism that took down the streetcars, and in a place like Denver, the franchises were paying for roads the car drivers damaging them weren’t. For many people though this explanation just isn’t as interesting as a Roger Rabbit GM conspiracy theory that persists to this day. 
Here’s my question. Is technology (the Uber, Google, Lyft, and Tesla hype train) that’s so focused on auto-mobility and self driving cars the new incarnation of the auto industry in the 40s, 50s and 60s?
 We can make several realistic comparisons…
 1. Like in the middle of the 20th century, autos are seen as the future of transportation. It’s futurama all over again but this time with even more self driving cars to travel the freeways built since Bel Geddes’ dream sequence. But then, just like now, we’re talking mostly about the positives of these advancements and not the negatives such as subsidized auto oriented land use. 
 2. Cab companies now just like streetcar companies at the time are seen as the problem. They have monopolies and special protections just like the franchise agreements in the form of medallions. What brought down streetcars was over-regulation (such as 5 cent fares forever) and cheaper capital cost alternatives such as buses. Here in SF, streetcars that didn’t have tunnels were replaced with buses because 2 employees per streetcar were required by regulations and the tracks were in such disrepair that the cost for replacement looked bad from a purely financial point of view.
 3. As transit agencies began to fail, interests started buying up the remnants and consolidating, hoping to squeeze value out of the existing systems. Eventually many were taken over by government. Consolidation took place just as it is now with GM now buying shares of Lyft and the remnants of Sidecar, Avis buying Zipcar, Daimler buying up car2go and other mobility companies, and Uber “poaching” robotics staff from Carnegie Mellon. All to try and get a piece of the new paradigm pie. 
 Now this is somewhat unrelated to the idea of Google, Apple, Facebook, and other buses traveling the mean streets of San Francisco to pick up tech employees which in turn “sabotages” local transit. But I wanted to lay out what the sabotaging/disrupting or whatever you want to call it actually is focused on at the moment. Cab companies.
 Solnit claims that tech people wouldn’t live in the city if the buses didn’t exist but that’s obviously a ridiculous claim and I can point to other studies that say people from those specific companies that run buses would just drive and still live in SF. It also ignores the fact that public transit shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to provide direct services for individual private companies. The employment land uses in the valley make the “just upgrade Caltrain” argument silly. I think we should do that, but that’s not the catch all answer. But that’s another post. 
You could argue that after cab companies have been dispatched, that ride hailing and car sharing apps might come after transit. They kind of already have by creating “stops” for their “carpool” services but perhaps this is just the start of how we’ll start the cycle I mentioned in the cab disruption above over again. 
A possible example of how this might go is below…. 
 1. Decision makers decide that self driving cars are the future of transportation. Transit agencies are competing for customers with these for-profit companies staking claim on the travel market. 
 2. Transit agencies are seen as the problem. They have monopolies and special protections but also a government mandated mission of serving the poorest residents of a place. Additionally, they are held to a certain standard of “profitability” giving them too many goals to reasonably serve. Opponents will claim bus and train drivers are paid too much and expect service to places that don’t have transit supportive densities and land uses because of the automobile based land use policies of the previous 50 years.
 3. Consolidation will take place as transit agencies start to work with self driving car companies to serve routes that are high cost and low service. Some smaller cities will eschew bus service all together in favor of self driving cars and the cycle will repeat. Auto oriented land uses will continue as we continue the inertia started by the automobile age. 
 Is this a realistic possible future? Perhaps yes. Is there a conspiracy to kill of transit by not supporting it with private companies? Are tech companies trying to kill transit? I don’t believe so. Would it be nice if these companies were more supportive? Yes but capitalism isn’t altruistic. 
I do think transit is hurting itself though by providing mediocre service and not being forward thinking in large parts of the country. It also becomes harder to defend against capitalist moves when it is built and operated with politics and not data. Additionally there is a distinct disadvantage when competing in hostile land uses built exclusively for the opponent. But this makes transit riders an easy target for companies that promise on demand point to point transportation even in areas where the geometry of transit has no peer. 50 people in a bus is still better than 4 people in a car in most CBDs. Eventually we’ll see this come to a head, I just don’t think we know how it’s going to hit. 
We can do better and we need to do better with transit, but if anything takes it down, it will be us as politicians, planners, and consumers. We decide what happens for better or worse, not a conspiracy of self driving cars.

Originally published at on April 11, 2016.