Banning self-driving cars will not atone for urban planning’s sins

A quantifiably better—but not perfect—San Francisco.

The backlash to self-driving cars is shifting into fifth gear. Last month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Cruise’s autonomous taxis’ license to operate after a series of incidents and credible allegations the company withheld important evidence on at least one accident from state investigators.

In a statement celebrating the suspension, Safe Street Rebel, a San Francisco anti-car activist group that drew national attention for purposely disabling robotaxis across the city over the last few months, say they are far from done. Waymo, Cruise’s chief competitor in the city, is next. Their mission is not about the errant practices of one dishonest company or a plea for higher, attainable safety standards, but a campaign for permanent prohibition, full stop. And in San Francisco, at least, they might just win.

Safe Street Rebel is on the more extreme end of anti-car activism common in urbanist circles not just in San Francisco, but in practically every major American city. The organization’s homepage reads:

The last half-century has been a failed experiment with car dominance. They bankrupt our cities, ruin our environment, and force working people to sacrifice an unacceptable amount of their income to pay for basic transportation. It is time to end car dependence and rethink our streets around public transit, walking and bikes.

Indeed, they have a point. The 20th century saw urban highways cut through and destroy vibrant communities. Urban rail networks shriveled as the country suburbanized. Car dependency is deeply rooted in land use rules, too, as new housing and commercial space are typically required to purchase and set aside parking spaces for users and residents. In a display of just how ingrained car culture is in American politics, even modest congestion pricing in Manhattan–perhaps the community where such a policy makes the most sense on both economic and environmental grounds–comes with a vicious years-long fight. In many ways, car dependency is the original sin of American urban planning.

To lay my cards on the table: I’m an urbanist myself who desperately wants to see more bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and car-free streets where I live in Washington D.C. I do not own a car and don’t imagine that I will anytime soon.

But would the efforts of fervent anti-car activists to ban autonomous vehicles actually ameliorate the problems caused by car dependency, or make us any safer?

Let’s start with safety, which is ostensibly the main issue in the debate on self-driving cars. Automobile accidents kill nearly 40,000 people per year in the United States. In 2021, nearly 8,000 of these were pedestrians. It is worth noting that the U.S. is a major outlier on road safety. Our rate of automobile fatalities is twice the average of a group of 28 peer countries, according to a CDC analysis, at 11 per 100,000 people.

Even at this early stage of development, autonomous vehicles already appear to rival human drivers. A recent analysis from insurer SwissRe of nearly four million miles of driving data from fully autonomous Waymo vehicles found they accounted for 76 percent less property damage-causing accidents than human drivers. Despite some high-profile incidents in San Francisco and elsewhere, driverless cars may already be safer in general. (Notably, Cruise’s safety record has been consistently and substantially worse than Waymo’s.) But even if you don’t yet buy this claim, self-driving cars are almost certainly going to improve with further testing and more powerful internal models. Their human rivals, meanwhile, are not due for a software upgrade anytime soon. If safe street groups gain more traction against self-driving cars than against human-operated ones—which at this point seems very likely—their efforts may actually make our streets more dangerous.

Perhaps you’re playing the long game here and think that the growth in self-driving cars on our streets will further tilt the political playing field further towards auto-centric infrastructure priorities. That’s an understandable concern given how entrenched car-centric politics have proven to be. But consider this: even an extreme anti-car group like Safe Street Rebel is proudly in alliance with San Francisco’s taxi drivers’ association. Existing taxi drivers obviously stand to lose from the transition to autonomous vehicles, having spent up to $250,000 on licenses to operate. Might salvaging the taxi lobby as a viable political force also serve to entrench auto infrastructure? Not even the most ardent believers can avoid the pitfalls of coalitional politics.

Would banning self-driving cars even be a win against pollution and climate change? Unlikely: the fleets of both Cruise and Waymo are 100% electric, which neither the general driving public nor San Francisco’s taxis can claim themselves. Electric cars do not completely eliminate the air pollution from driving (their higher weight stirs up more dust and wears down tires faster), but evidence so far suggests they are a major improvement over gas-powered rivals.

Critically, bans on self-driving cars do nothing to make public transit alternatives any better. On the margin, prohibiting people from taking advantage of cheap AV rides might protect some of public transit’s market share. However, that transit needs such protection speaks more to its failure to deliver quality and reliable service than it does to the supposed evils of self-driving cars. Urban transit agencies will be no less dysfunctional with this new source of competition neutralized. The cost crisis afflicting American infrastructure–and urban metro expansions in particular–is still crippling and inexcusable.

In other words, banning self-driving cars fails even on urbanist anti-car activists’ own terms. The damage done to our cities by an over-reliance on cars is deep and will take decades to root out. Doing so will require radical liberalization of land use to allow for denser development; a national effort to tackle the causes of spiraling infrastructure costs; and serious conversations about how we sustainably fund transit systems across the country. Stamping out AVs now, just as they are beginning to near viability for widespread adoption, does nothing on these fronts.

In the near-term, self-driving vehicles have the potential to save many thousands of lives, reduce carbon emissions, and provide people with another affordable option to meet their unique transportation needs. They will make cities function better in many of the ways that matter most to urbanists like myself. In many neighborhoods in which robust public transit may never quite pencil out, self-driving cars can help solve systems’ last-mile problem, improving job access for those living in distressed communities.

AVs may not deliver us from our cities’ most consequential mistakes, but they will quantifiably improve urban life along many dimensions. That sounds like “good news” to me.

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