(Note: as a civil engineer, I obviously have a self-interest in infrastructure financing.)
An opinion piece in today’s LA Times wonders if LA Metro’s proposed ballot initiative to fund mass transit, road, bike, and pedestrian improvements will soon be obsolete due to changes like driverless cars, hyperloop, and self-contained communities.
With the usual caveat that anything is possible and predicting the future is hard, I think this is pretty unlikely. Assuming the projects are well-executed, LA Metro’s plan will prove to be a beneficial investment in the region’s infrastructure.
As far as innovation in transportation goes, remember that transportation is a well-established industry. The major modes of transportation we use were developed decades ago: railroads in the mid 1800s, bicycles in the late 1800s, cars in the early 1900s, and airplanes in the mid 1900s. The last truly revolutionary changes in transportation were what – the jet engine for commercial air travel and containerization for freight? It’s possible a new technology like hyperloop will be developed and come to market; however, as currently conceived, hyperloop is a low-capacity luxury intercity service, not a solution for local mobility in cities.
Autonomous vehicles (AVs) should probably be analyzed in the same way. They are an incremental improvement on long-standing technology, not a new type of transportation. At this point, the theorized increases in highway capacity and reductions in car ownership are just that: theoretical. Trains and airplanes, which operate in much more controlled environments, don’t follow each other so closely that crashes are inevitable if something goes wrong, which is an underlying assumption of achieving major capacity increases with AVs. They will be great for safety, but the number of fatalities per billion miles traveled has fallen from over 200 in the 1920s to less than 20 today, thanks to things like better mechanical engineering for cars and better civil engineering for roads. AVs aren’t a revolution in safety; they’re just finishing a job that’s over 90% done. And if AVs do reduce the cost of driving, they may increase car ownership rather than decrease it.
Self-contained communities are also unlikely, because they buck the pattern of how people use cities. As cities grow, they can serve an increasing diversity and specialization of interests, and accessing them requires good transportation across the region. For example, let’s say you work in finance, which concentrates in downtown LA. You’re going to want to live somewhere convenient to downtown, as will most of your coworkers. However, you might really like Chinese food, and want to live in the San Gabriel Valley, while one of your coworkers might really like the beach and want to live in Santa Monica. Your partner might work in a logistics park in Ontario, and might really like the food in Little Saigon in Orange County. People and businesses distribute themselves around the region on different patterns. You can only take advantage of everything the city offers if you can easily travel around it. Logistics improvements like same-day delivery just invert the trip; instead of you traveling to the amenity, the amenity travels to you. Telecommuting will work well for a small set of people, poorly for a larger set of people, and not at all for an even larger group.
The transportation we need in 2016 is not very different from what we needed in 1966; in fact, the transportation we need in 2016 is not even all that different from what we needed in 1916, when rapid transit lines and electric railways were proliferating, and the first controlled access roadways were less than a decade away. SoCal is going to keep growing, and we’re going to need to fix our roads, expand transit, and improve bike and ped facilities. The LA Metro ballot initiative is something we can do today to help meet these needs for decades to come, and anyone who cares about the future of LA should strongly consider supporting it, rather than hoping for technological silver bullets to solve our transportation problems.