A big infrastructure bill finally passed the House this week, pushing $305 billion over five years to transit and highway projects. In the same week, Uber raised another $2.1 billion, bringing its total valuation to $62.5 billion—roughly the same amount the new bill spends on infrastructure each year.
Which of these figures do you think will impact our streets more? The answer will tell you everything about how the way we get around is changing—and how the way we plan for transportation needs to change along with it.
Uber is just one example of a company that’s radically altering our streets. Not only is it changing what it means to use a car, it’s now a major player in an autonomous revolution. Uber will transform the landscape of America’s road system, alongside its peers like Google, Apple, Tesla, and others.
Yet, if you look closely, nowhere in the new transportation bill is it clear that driverless cars, or even ride-sharing, is guiding the allocation of that hard-won $305 billion. That has to change, fast.
The Backwards Way We Build Infrastructure
The House bill, nicknamed FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation), will help pump much-needed funds into subways, light-rail lines, and other transit projects, including $4 billion per year for biking infrastructure.
This is good news. But the FAST Act will also allocate lots of money to expanding or building new highways—an ongoing, outdated attempt by transportation departments to “fix” congestion. This is the big problem with bills like FAST: For any kind of transportation bill to be effective in this country, highway projects need to be uncoupled from transit projects. Why? Because they’re two different things with two very different final outcomes.
Widening roads is not a solution for alleviating gridlock, as so many cities have spent billions of dollars over the past few decades learning. Investments in transit on the other hand, including walking and biking infrastructure, have been proven to help traffic flow and save cities money over time—not only due to decreased costs for construction and maintenance, but also from a public health perspective. A truly transformative transportation bill would require that states spend the money on forward-thinking sustainable transit solutions, not backwards car-focused policies.
But there’s another, even bigger reason why we need to think about highways separately from transit infrastructure going forward: Within the next five years, how we drive, where we go, and even the number of cars we use to get there is going to change forever.
Fewer Cars—and Fewer Human Drivers
Within the coming decade, America’s roads will likely see its biggest changes since the construction of the Interstate Highway System a half-century ago. Yet we’re still planning for cars like it’s 1956.
The US reached “peak car” in 2008. The absolute number of vehicles on US streets has slowly gone down in the last seven years. And whatever you believe about millennials choosing not to drive as part of their personal ethos, or because they can’t afford car payments, one fact is irrefutably true: Right now, the largest generation in the country is driving a lot less than any other generation before it. Then consider the growing improvements to transit, walking, and biking infrastructure, which gets even more cars off the streets.
When you toss self-driving vehicles into the mix, you can see just how drastically the urban landscape will change.
Because autonomous vehicles will be shared—providing true on-demand rides—there will be fewer cars on the road. That means the space we devote to them also can decrease. Surface parking lots will be a thing of the past. On-street parking will be replaced by a handful of loading and unloading zones. In fact, some experts warn that 85 percent of current road infrastructure should start to be reclaimed by cities now because it will be useless. That’s more room for housing, schools, parks, and economy-generating businesses.
Yet, if you look at the money being sprinkled all over the country by this five-year transportation plan, none of this money will likely be devoted to the self-driving future that’s coming. As I reported last month, just a handful of US cities have anything about on-demand services or self-driving cars in their long-term transportation plans—and only Los Angeles has a task force specifically assembled to address how the city should plan for autonomy.
If we do this right, we could divert all that money earmarked for unnecessary freeway lanes into projects reclaiming that car-centric real estate. But if we do this wrong, we’re on a collision course with disaster, designing for more and more cars that will never materialize.
We Have To Start Planning For Autonomous Cars
In addition to uncoupling road and transit infrastructure spending, there absolutely has to be a federal task force that will create a 10-year plan to bring autonomy to US streets, including how to help cities prepare their infrastructure intelligently for this reality. Sweden has a dedicated government department that collaborates with automakers like Volvo, and the US should do the same with self-driving companies here.
But it needs to go even further than that. The success of self-driving automakers and tech companies depends on the quality and performance of the country’s roads. Google and Apple and Tesla and Uber are not just users of these roads, they’re the stewards of these roads going forward. Roads are their hardware for solving our mobility problems with better technology.
It’s time to start treating these companies as the stakeholders that they are, bringing them into the long-term, high-level planning process. These companies can help build safer, smarter, more affordable streets if our country wises up about how to allocate its transportation money.
The FAST Act is heavily earmarked and it’s unlikely that cities can change how its funds will be spent now. But let’s hope we can see some true reform in the next five years. Cities absolutely have to work closely with the companies that are radically altering their streets and start preparing for the ways that people will get around in the future—because that future is nearly here.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA
Art by Sam Woolley