Driving Through The Future

May 10, 2016

“Humans are bad drivers,” Oliver Sachgau writes last weekend in the Toronto Star’s “Driverless cars will shape our lives – if we let them.jetpack

Mr. Sachgau will get no argument from me there. Humans are also quite bad predictors of the future too, says someone who grew up with 1960s picture books that promised us jetpacks by the year 2000. Jetpacks, jetting us off to our long weekends at Disneyuniverse Mars.

I have no doubt driverless technology will be a part of our future. It’s already here, in fact. There are cars driving automatedly among us currently.

It’s just… I have a couple issues with how Mr. Sachgau sees this all playing out.

It’s 7:20 a.m. on a Monday in the not-too-distant future. You wake up, and realize you’ve overslept. It’s a two-hour commute to work, so you call your boss and tell her you’ll start working on the way.

(Woah! Your boss is a her? It must be the future.)worldoftomorrow

In this scenario, Sachgau’s non-gender specific stand-in lives 2 hours from work. Who the fuck wants a future where you’re commuting — driverlessly or not — 4 hours a day? But I’ll be able to get so much done during that time with something else doing the driving. During Oscar season, I can watch all the nominated films from the comfort of my own back seat!

With driverless cars, in this version of the future everyone is driving everywhere.

For the next two hours, you’re immersed in work as your car takes you to the office. Once you arrive, you’ll order another car to pick up your kids — who’ve hopefully woken up by now — and drive them to school. Another car will pick them up and drive them home in time to have dinner with you.

Just as it was forecast in New York in 1939. The World of Tomorrow.

I don’t doubt driverless cars will make the act of driving better in many, many ways. Safer, smarter, a whole lot less ragey. Maybe. worldoftomorrow2By almost every measure, we are terrible at driving. Our judgement at higher speeds is suspect. We don’t share the roads in any what that doesn’t make congestion worse. We’re so easily distracted.

Yet, this is the one important fact the article steadfastly does not address, most conversations about the future of self-driving cars I’ve heard and read rarely bring up. By making driving easier, more appealing to more people, more people want to drive…more. Induced demand, in other, more succinct words.

If everybody oversleeps and summons a car to take them to work, and everybody is still heading toward the same general area of a region, say, the downtown core, for example, where is all that extra road space going to come from? Has anyone actually done that math? Self-driving cars improve congestion travel times by x%, therefore we will see an increase of car use by y%. Unless the new technology is so vastly superior that it is able to transcend the bounds of induced demand, people are still going to be stuck in traffic, driving or not.

The article dedicates exactly one paragraph to self-driving vehicles and public transit. “Buses and subways might continue to exist,” Sachgau writes, “while people continue to own cars, only now…” wait for it, wait for, “…all of those won’t require drivers.” What does that sentence even mean? worldoftomorrow3Everything is going to be exactly the same except the cars will drive themselves.

Cities would be better off preparing for driverless technology and public transit rather than making way for driverless cars, the real key word there remains cars, private vehicles, not the driverless part. Sachgau suggests that car ownership might decline, with people realizing the benefits of just hiring them when necessary, like getting to work, getting the kids to school, going shopping, going out to a restaurant, a movie, although that possibility is questioned by an innovation expert at the University of Toronto.

There’s no second amendment for vehicle ownership. But a lot of people probably think vehicle ownership as a basic human right.

So, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future, when a self-driving car isn’t prohibitively expensive, and the same, if not more, people own one, using it exactly like they use it today, the only difference being, they’re not driving it, but still demanding that cities make the room for them to operate smoothly. Sure, the amount of space dedicated solely to the private automobile will shrink, owing to things like increased safety and less need for parking, making room for other modes of transportation. worldoftomorrow1But if travelling by car gets easier, cheaper and even more convenient than it is now, cities are still going to be dominated by them. What kind of improvement will that be exactly?

“The tech sector…establishes a reality on the ground before governments and even ordinary citizens even have an opportunity to understand these issues, let alone figure out how they want to deal with them,” according to the innovation expert, David Ticoll, of the Munk School of Global Affairs, who has submitted a report to the city of Toronto addressing the driverless car future.

Ticoll said the city can’t afford to take the same pace when dealing with driverless cars that it has taken with other issues such as the Uber-taxi debate.

We all know how that turned out. Big business played chicken and our local government blinked, essentially rolling over on the red carpet that it had set out for Uber. That was one company. Now imagine a whole bunch of them, all with their own shiny version of a driverless car, wanting to flood our streets with them. Are we really aiming to have everyone spend more time in their cars even if they aren’t driving?

skeptically submitted by Cityslikr


The Politics Of Driving

May 9, 2016

Last week, I wrote about my self-diagnosed case of SUV-induced driving madness. The act of transforming into another, more horrible person while operating a motorized vehicle. gentlemenjekyllTurns out, that actually might be a thing, an ailment.

In response to the post, @trapdinawrpool sent me a 1950 National Film Board short film, Gentlemen Jekyll and Driver Hyde. Seems this has been a nasty condition afflicting drivers pretty much from the get-go of the auto age. Road rage.

We also received in our comments section a couple very interesting and pertinent links. A Wikipedia page to ‘Traffic psychology’, most of it not good or healthy. Also, a Guardian article from August 2013, Bad driving: what are we thinking?

Aside from pointing out that I’m not very original or breaking new ground here, it did feed into something that’s been percolating in my noggin for a bit now, accelerated significantly during my time spent down in Los Angeles earlier this year. Is there a link between our driving and our politics? Not necessarily big P politics but the way one approaches (or doesn’t) the political process, the expectations we hold of our elected officials and the demands we make of them.

Decades of research in traffic psychology suggests that poor driving is shaped by far more than carelessness or a subset of “problem drivers”. Even the most skilled road users are subject to loss of social awareness, intuitive biases, contradictory beliefs, and limits in cognitive capacity.

Decades of research in voting psychology suggests that political beliefs are shaped by far more than carelessness or a subset of “problem voters”. drivefreeEven the most skilled voters are subject to loss of social awareness, intuitive biases, contradictory beliefs and limits in cognitive capacity.

Strategically replace a couple words and phrases, and that paragraph still makes some sense.

In Fighting Traffic, Peter D. Norton’s book on the rise of the private automobile to the top of our transportation system heap, he points out how, in the early days when car makers were fighting for legitimacy and pushing back on the public perception of drivers as a dangerous menace on city streets, personal freedom and individual rights were evoked. Driving as a noble act, the logical outcome of the scientific age of reason, everything the Founding Fathers envisioned. I drive, therefore I am.

The automotive city arose in part from an attack on the old customs of street use and an effort to let individual liberty and free markets rule there too. From American ideals of political and economic freedom, motordom fashioned the rhetorical lever it needed.

Nearly a century later and this appeal to the spirit of individualism remains strong in the selling of cars. TV ads full of open roads, running through empty country, trekking deep into the wild frontier. getofmylawn“Long live the pioneers!”

The ascendancy of car travel and commuting contributed, not in a minor way, to the spread of the suburban design of cities that we contend with today. Detached, single-family homes on large lots, single-use building codes strictly maintained, industry here, commercial there, residential over that way, fed by and dependent upon car travel. The accentuation of private space enabled, ironically, by massive public spending in road and freeway infrastructure.

Can the leap be made, though, connecting the triumph of the car, and its emphasis on individual convenience and “freedom” (I just had to put that into quotes), to the rise in political conservatism, especially of the modern conservative type? Certainly not by me, not in this post. roadrageAnd certainly not as the sole culprit, the…a-hem, a-hem…driving force behind a political movement.

It is a concept worth contemplating further, I believe. Look, at the political dynamics here in Toronto, amalgamated Toronto. Consider those areas of the city where the residents are more car dependent and underserved by public transit. Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, for example. What wards do some of the most conservative city councillors represent, your Fords, Holydays, Minnan-Wongs, Norm Kellys? Where there is access to public transit and driving isn’t a necessity? Downtown, the old legacy city, essentially. That’s where you’ll find your most ardent left wingers, your Perks, Laytons and McConnells.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. Correlation versus causation? That’s a tougher nut to crack, for sure. But I do think the overlap between how we get around our city and how we view the city is an important angle to explore. asamatteroffact(It probably has been already, extensively, and I’m just behind in my reading.) When the most significant public space to you during the course of an average day is that spot where you can park your car cheaply, your politics may be vastly different than those of somebody looking for a nice quiet spot in the sunshine to have a bite to eat during their lunch hour.

curiously submitted by Cityslikr

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Thoughts From A One Time SUV Driver

May 2, 2016

For reasons I cannot divulge, I found myself behind the wheel of a mini-SUV this weekend. Mini-SUV. Jumbo shrimp.actnatural Rolling stop. Act naturally.

So, a couple observations from the driver’s seat. Which could warm your ass with the push of a button. Why would you ever not drive everywhere when it’s even the slightest bit chilly outside?

Early on in the trip, I was surprised by a pothole in the road ahead of me. I could’ve avoided it with a fairly safe swerve but not knowing the vehicle very well yet and how it might handle a swerve, I chose to take on the pothole directly. I mean, it wasn’t my truck mini-SUV. Any damage wouldn’t be on me or my credit card.

I didn’t feel a thing.

Are you kidding me? I hadn’t navigated a sinkhole but, holy shit, it was like a tank traversing a World War I era trench except smoother. So, in fact, nothing like that at all, a terrible analogy especially since I’ve never driven a tank over or around or into a World War I era trench. tankAn awful comparison. I should absolutely edit it but… That ride! So smooth and effortless. Who cares really?

I wondered exactly how big an object a mini-SUV could run over before a driver noticed. A squirrel? A cat? A dog? A toddler in a wagon? A cyclist? How about an actual, full on SUV? Would it crush a Smartcar under its wheels, drag it along for kilometres without so much a smattering of recognition by anyone pleasantly ensconced in the truck’s comfy, oblivious confines?

It’s not distracted driving, exactly. It’s driving unawares. Unaware of anything outside the bubble.

OK. Yeah, that’s distracted driving. But a designed distracted driving, encouraged by the ease of the vehicle you’re driving, designed so you don’t notice any of the unpleasantness of driving.dashboardgadgets

Compare that with sitting on the bus, if you manage to get a seat, feeling every bump and divet in the road under you. Or on your bike where avoiding that street crater means avoiding serious injury. Or just on your feet, walking, where danger lurks around every corner or up any alley. Stay vigilant to stay alive.

Drivers, on the other hand, all efforts are made to disconnect them with all other road users.

Bringing me to my second point.

Enabling such a sense of entitlement in drivers to disregard fellow travellers, also emboldens them, encourages aggressiveness. As a matter of fact, I do own the road. Just watch me.

I truly surprised myself with a couple of the manoeuvres I attempted while driving this mini-SUV. Sitting high up in my seat, looking down on much of the traffic, I nosed out pushily into lanes, seizing space that opened up for me – For Me! – while, probably, inconveniencing other drivers who had to slow down to allow me to ‘sneak’ in ahead of them. I say, ‘probably’ because I didn’t hear any squealing of brakes or angry honking of horns. luxuriousrideOf course, my windows were rolled up, the radio on, my buns warm, a toasty complacency upon me, so I might’ve missed any sort of negative feedback that was flashed my way. I know I would’ve been pissed if non-mini-SUV driving me had encountered mini-SUV driving me acting like such an asshole. Especially after having aggressively inserted myself into the left lane and immediately throwing on the left turn signal, blocking traffic even further. Hey! I signalled, didn’t I?

That’s the thing, right? By endeavouring to make driving easier, more pleasant, a veritable ass-heated stroll in the park, if you will, we’ve tapped into and egged on our inner asshole. “Why would he do that?” non-drivers often find themselves asking when subject to yet another asshole move by some asshole driver. Because they can. Because there are very few repercussions to their actions, aside from increased insurance premiums and occasional temper tantrums they engender.

Sure. Some motorists die but fewer than used to die. There’s the collateral damage, as well, the pedestrians and cyclists, yet rarely do drivers pay the true cost for their fault in causing the fatalities, for actually killing or injuring anybody. deathrace2000Unfortunate and unavoidable “accidents”, when all is said and done. They didn’t see that guy riding the bicycle there. The pedestrian unexpectedly stepped into the intersection as I was attempting to get through that stale yellow light. The kid was riding on the sidewalk.

The more we put drivers at ease, the more we put everyone else out on the street at risk. In a car, at the wheel, you don’t have to be looking at your phone to be distracted. As long as you feel insulated from everybody else around you on the road, that’s already more than enough lethal level of distraction.

driving-the-point-homely submitted by Cityslikr


As Advertised

April 26, 2016

Maybe we’ve been thinking about this incorrectly, our approach gone about all wrong.brightidea

What if, instead of getting caught up in a race to modernize the city, to adapt to a changing environment, demographics, that whole, confusing and, frankly, somewhat suspect new urbanism business, Toronto pitch itself as a haven from the 21st-century? Why bother trying to keep pace with New York City? It’s a losing battle. Paris? Forget it. Too European. Even Los Angeles, the very model of a major metropolitan area (as sung by The Beach Boys), is valiantly attempting to reconfigure its transportation hierarchy.

There’s a niche opening up here for our city if we’re bold enough to seize the opportunity.

You Like Things Just The Way They Used To Be? Tired Of Having To Rethink Your Strongly Held Views? 1950scaradDo You Suspect That Prioritizing Public Transit And Other Forms Of Non-Car Commuting Is Probably Some Sort Of Special Interest Agenda? Don’t Mind Sitting In Traffic With The Tunes Blasting In Your Smooth, Smooth Ride? (Do You Know How Much This Honey Cost Me? Status, Baby. Status.)

Then Toronto just might be the place for you.

The bones of a dynamic, autocentric, 1950s throwback city are pretty much still in place. We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain an elevated urban expressway. Who else is doing that? Our mayor and city council leave no stone unturned in finding money to repair our roads while remaining tight-lipped and fisted funding transit.

And development? As long as we can keep the towers going up downtown, replenishing the wider tax base, the “village feel” we all rabidly protect elsewhere will be maintained. americangothicMidrise? That’s not the kind of neighbourhood I want to raise my kids in. Think about the traffic! Oh, and the children.

Change is hard. Not changing is easy. With everybody else out there chasing change, Toronto can tap into the inevitable reactionary discontent.

Disgruntled? Fed Up With Being Told You Made A Terrible Lifestyle Choice? Ready To Put Down Roots Somewhere Your Self-Important Sense Of Entitlement Will Be Appreciated And Catered To?

Toronto is the place. Dig in here. Call it home.

spitballingly submitted by Cityslikr


Misrepresenting Congestion

April 22, 2016

I’ve been trying to get my head around our continued, if not love affair with, our prioritization of, car travel. We know our auto dependency skews and hobbles entire transportation networks. We know that. thinking1We know the least efficient, most expensive way to move the greatest number of people around a heavily populated region is with single-occupant vehicles. We know the high environmental and social costs of driving, and driving, and driving.

But in our hearts, the car commercials promise us freedom behind the wheel. Wide open roads. Wind in our hair. Where are the open roads?

A status quo bias also figures into this. It’s always more difficult to dethrone the king. You have to knockout the champ to earn the title not win on points. Imagining a future that’s different from the past takes work, especially if it’s a past we lionize in golden hues, a past we need to return to get out from under our present woes.

And did I mention the car ads? Their relentless assault on our faculties of reasoning. Zoom, zoom. I want my zoom, zoom.

But there could be something else at work here, helping to keep our entrenched views entrenched. How we measure congestion, commuting and mobility may tilt decision-making in favour of auto use. A heavy thumb on the scale, the question is always framed: zoomzoomHow can we make car travel faster?

Or call it, ‘roadway delay’. Over the past week or so, the Transportation 4 America blog has been writing about it, anticipating the release of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s rules regulating use for federal funds for road and bridges upkeep, congestion, emissions, etc., etc., the whole transportation shebang. Reading through it, a couple huge ideas jumped out at me. In no particular order:

Because there’s a direct connection between how we decide to measure congestion and the resulting strategies for addressing it.

The report’s touchstone metric is a blunt measure of peak-hour speeds compared to an empty road in the middle of the night.

The report focuses only on drivers — not commuters as a whole.

Let me go back a bit. The report being referred to here is the annual publication, Travel Time Index, issued by an entity called the Texas Transportation Institute. It’s nothing official but gets a lot of press coverage and appears to unduly influence how certain jurisdictions apportion their transportation dollars.

Continuing:

TTI completely ignores the actual time and distance of commutes. If you have a 20-minute commute home but move at a lower speed, your commute scores worse than the person driving 80 minutes at a higher speed.

[Roadway] Delay is also blind to how many people a corridor is actually moving — it only looks at the number of vehicles.

So to recap, an influential report on congestion 1) uses a traffic measurement for driving essentially on an empty freeway as a baseline; 2) judges those driving shorter distances at slower speeds as having ‘worse’ commutes than those travelling greater distances at higher speeds; 3) counts vehicles’ movements not people’s movements; sleightofhand4) tabulates data on driving and driving only.

To re-recap: influential report on congestion makes like we only travel around cities individually in our cars, the longer time spent driving the better, and we should demand absolute car commercial ease while behind the wheel, not another soul on the road, zoom zoom.

Is it any wonder we think car travel is, realistically, the only viable way to get around, and believe that anything that gets in their way, threatens a smooth ride from point A to point B, must be dealt with expeditiously and decisively? No money spared to keep the wheels a-rolling, no cost too steep to ensure unhampered  mobility. Who’s to blame for this slowdown? Beep beep. I’ve got places to go. Why are you all using my road now?

Imagine determining public transit congestion in a similar fashion. The baseline being a subway stop in your basement that is just waiting for you whenever you want to ride it. It doesn’t stop until you get to where you’re going, always travelling at top speed. doesnotaddupThe longer you ride it, the further and faster you go, is considered a more desirable commute than if you were stuck going a fraction of the distance and speed. Anything other than those optimal conditions would be considered congestion and some sort of expensive fix would be called for.

That’s ridiculous, you’d say. Completely unrealistic. And you’d be right, too, but it seems such ludicrously automobile-friendly studies carry actual weight with decision-makers and dictate how public money and resources, lots and lots of money and resources, get spent on transportation. Slanted and skewed out of any sensible proportion. Zoom zoom.

Besides, public transit congestion studies? What’re you on about? Just be thankful there’s public transit to not study.

In responding to criticism that the Texas Transportation Institute is too focused on the driver piece of the congestion puzzle, the author of the 2015 report, Tim Lomax responded.

We have backed away from trying to make estimates of what is happening on the transit side because we don’t have very good transit data. We don’t have good data about how people are walking. So we concentrated on where we have the data.

We concentrate on where we have data. Where there’s no data, existence is questionable. Yeah, I think I might’ve seen one or two people on foot out there through my windshield. Yield to a bus? Come on. There’s no such thing.

We study it (regardless of how flawed the methodology), therefore it is.

I don’t know if the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Reports are extreme cases of unbalanced bias adversely affecting public infrastructure choices, something of an outlier. sweepundertherugHere in Toronto, headline grabbing discussion papers, like this one from the Board of Trade in 2013, talk of commute times in terms of a mix of drivers and public transit users but, I’ll be damned if I can find the exact ratios. 70% of commutes in the GTHA are made by car, 5% by rail (GO and the subway), leaving a substantial 25% unexplained gap. Bus riders? Cyclists? Walkers? No data. Of no consequence.

We learn that commute times throughout the GTHA had risen to 66 minutes each way. Nowhere could I find, however, how that time was arrived at. Were drivers spending less time getting to work and back than those using public transit? Probably, because outside of parts of the downtown core of Toronto (maybe), it’s always faster to take a car than it is public transit.

What we do discover is that Toronto drivers spend 40 days of every year driving and:

Most emblematic of congestion in the Toronto Region is the 401 highway, declared “officially the busiest stretch of freeway anywhere in North America” by none other than the US Department of Transportation.

Really? The most emblematic? Not that person, stuck out in some transit desert (part of the missing 25%), unable to drive, praying for the bus to come soon, so they don’t miss their connection to the next bus?

To be fair to the Board of Trade, they’ve been consistently beating the drum for massive investment in public transit, paid for, largely, by drivers. openroad1Yet, when your emphasis and highlights focus on the plight of drivers, it’s a tough sell to then ask them to cough up more cash for something they’re not in the habit of using. What’s in it for me?

Unsurprisingly, 3 years on, a couple election campaigns later, no new transit funding is in place, grand plans remain very much theoretical. Money has been found, though, to widen one highway, speed up repairs on a second and keep another portion elevated to save minutes for an infinitesimally small percentage of drivers. Why? Because there’s ample data to support such decision, if you’re used to looking at it a certain way. Because that’s just how it’s been forever or, at least, the past 70 years or so. Because zoom zoom.

wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr