Guest Opinions

Driverless cars will solve plenty of transit problems

Rich O'Hara
Rich O'Hara

When I was a young man studying urban and regional planning in grad school, my exuberant classmates would occasionally envision urban settings with all new buildings, skyways, trolley cars, and a network of meandering pathways and parks. I’d gently curb their enthusiasm by saying, “The future will resemble the present.” In other words, change takes place slowly, piece by piece, and is constrained by everything built before.

Now, however, we’re on the edge of a significant transformation, comparable to the rise of the automobile and the interstate in the ’50s and ’60s. We’re at the dawn of the era of the driverless car, and widespread changes are going to occur at a rapid pace.

Driverless car technology development is complete, and we’re now entering the implementation phase. The major players are quickly entering into strategic partnerships. Saudi investors are making multibillion-dollar deals. Ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft are teaming up with automobile manufacturers and the big technology companies such as Amazon and Google. These are important developments because key participants realize that their business models are about to change and they need to create new ventures in order to survive. So General Motors now conceives of itself as a mobility company, not a car manufacturer. And Uber knows that its drivers are going to fade away, but it still wants a piece of the action.

A 2013 study by the Earth Institute at Columbia University (Transforming Personal Mobility) unveils many of the transformations that the driverless car will create. The first impact is increased mobility at a reduced cost. People who are not able to travel due to age or infirmity will suddenly have low-cost transport options. And General Motors and Lyft will start a driverless taxi service within a year, so these advantages are not far away.

Secondary benefits include improved traffic safety, reduced roadway congestion, increased energy efficiency, reduced insurance rates and reduced air emissions. Models produced by the Earth Institute indicate that service can be rapidly provided, so that a message from your cellphone will deliver a car to your doorstep in a few minutes or less. Transport costs will be much lower than taxi service or a Uber ride, and the “smart’ aspects of the car will make it possible to balance cost and efficiency to meet societal goals. For example, the city of Boise could subsidize trips that terminate downtown and support ride sharing, while subsidizing underserved populations and those unable to pay.

The city is earnestly studying options for a “T-Connector” downtown, but the driverless car will provide a market-based solution to mass transit before the city can even act. There will be little public interest in buses and trolleys that follow fixed routes. It will be easier to call for a car that takes you exactly where you want to go, when you want to go.

It’s time for the city to prepare for the future. It’s going to be fun.

Rich O’Hara holds a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has resided in Boise for the last dozen years.