A country of roving electric car fleets

Andrew Yang is not the first to propose this though he may be the first presidential contender to do so: replace car ownership with fleets of autonomous vehicles.

He told MSNBC host Ali Velshi that “we might not own our own cars” by 2050 to wean the United States economy off of fossil fuels, describing private car ownership as “really inefficient and bad for the environment.” Privately owned cars would be replaced by a “constant roving fleet of electric cars.”…

“What we’re really selling is not the car, it’s mobility,” he said. “So if you have mobility that’s then tied into a much more, if you had like, for example, this constant roving fleet of electric cars that you would just order up, then you could diminish the impact of ground transportation on our environment very, very quickly.”

Americans like driving and have integrated vehicles into all sorts of daily activities. This would not just be about replacing the ability of a car owner to get into their vehicle whenever they want and drive around; this could change how houses are designed (garages could be placed elsewhere or eliminated), the fast food business, big box stores, rush hour (perhaps there would not or should not be enough vehicles in the fleet to meet the needs of current rush hour), road trips, and more.

It is interesting to consider how willing people would be to do this. Is this really just about mobility? Interest in driving may be lagging for younger Americans but do they want to give up cars altogether (or privately owned autonomous vehicles that could be more like rooms) in favor of vehicles that are shared with others? Would such changes require denser housing or could it enable more sprawl? If given choices about what changes to make regarding climate change, would people favor other options rather than giving up cars?

I have always lived within roughly 15 minutes of a major highway: easy access, no noise

In the homes in which I have lived, I have always had relatively easy access to highways. A short ten to fifteen minute drive is all it would take to get to a major highway and, barring traffic, an additional thirty minutes could take us to a major airport, downtown, or out of the metropolitan area.

On one hand, this is a major convenience. Metropolitan regions have areas that are closer or further away to transportation options. In the Chicago region which features a hub and spoke model of transportation (particularly the railroads but also the highways past I-355), living further out from the city means residents could be located further away from major roads. Trips get longer when it takes more time to get on the faster roads.

Additionally, we get the benefit of living near the highway without the negative externalities of being too close. We do not hear the highway. We do not live near the businesses that tend to collect at a highway exist (gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc.). The lights along the highways and exits are beyond our sight.

One way to see these advantages at play is in real estate listings. In the Chicago region, locations near major highways (and rail lines), tend to have this listed in the property description. Of course, some properties may be too close and this can detract from the home and property. These properties can still sell – they may still be in desirable locations and be nice residences – but that road noise can detract from the private experience many suburbanites desire. In our last housing search, we saw a number of homes within hearing distance of highways and this is not something we wanted.

American laws privileging driving, zoning, and differential effects

A law professor summarizes how American law reinforces driving in multiple ways:

A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions—laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards—zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit…

As a matter of law, the operating-speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law—speeding motorists—to rewrite it: Speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal. Other legislation amplifies the harm from this method. In California, for example, cities are sometimes obligated by law to raise speed limits against their will, and local governments are barred from lowering them even for safety reasons. This occurs against a backdrop of radical under-enforcement of the speed limit nationally, and the widespread banning of proven but unpopular lifesaving technologies such as automated speed cameras.

Just as telling as what activities the law regulates is whose interests it seeks to protect. Dozens of our peer nations require carmakers to mitigate harm to pedestrians caused by their products. U.S. design regulations, however, require only measures that enhance the safety of car occupants. Just as SUVs are becoming taller, heavier, and more prevalent—and pedestrian fatalities are surging—U.S. regulators have not required carmakers to embrace those more comprehensive design standards. Instead, they’ve launched campaigns baselessly blaming pedestrians for their own deaths…

In a similar spirit, criminal law has carved out a lesser category uniquely for vehicular manslaughter. Deep down, all of us who drive are afraid of accidentally killing someone and going to jail; this lesser charge was originally envisioned to persuade juries to convict reckless drivers. Yet this accommodation reflects a pattern. Even when a motorist kills someone and is found to have been violating the law while doing so (for example, by running a red light), criminal charges are rarely brought and judges go light. So often do police officers in New York fail to enforce road-safety rules—and illegally park their own vehicles on sidewalks and bike facilities—that specific Twitter accounts are dedicated to each type of misbehavior. Given New York’s lax enforcement record, the Freakonomics podcast described running over pedestrians there as “the perfect crime.”

Several related thoughts after reading the plentiful examples:

  1. The first example provided involved single-family home zoning. Cars and homes are intimately linked in the United States and particularly in the suburbs.
  2. I would be interested to see more discussion of how the legal structures arose alongside the rise of driving in the United States. Was it a back and forth? Did the quick acceptance of driving push the legal system in certain directions or did early legal changes give driving a boost?
  3. The approach of this article reminds me a bit of The Color of Law with the emphasis on the legal system. And the overall argument seems to be that such laws force Americans into driving. But, are there precedent-setting legal cases that could reverse this? Does the legal preference for driving rise to the level of discrimination? A case could be made since driving is expensive and owning a reliable car and driving is related to class which in the United States is also tied to race. Homeownership helps build wealth for certain groups that own but could driving also do the same? Or consider spatial mismatch where jobs and economic opportunities might be hard to access without a significant drive via car.
  4. How might this change with driverless cars and autonomous vehicles? The current system seems to privilege drivers but what if there are not drivers but rather processors, companies, and vehicle owners?

Take a road trip to (downtown) Naperville

I found a suggested road trip to the suburb of Naperville, Illinois in a recent AAA magazine:


Several things strike me about this list:

1. All but one of the listed items to do is in downtown Naperville (with that other location almost out of the suburbs on the northwest side). This is a testament to the vibrancy and uniqueness of downtown Naperville.

2. Related to #1, all but one of the locations is walkable from the others. This is probably pretty unique in many American suburbs which are automobile dependent (as is the majority of Naperville).

3. What is missing from this list: Naper Settlement, the downtown shopping options, the rest of Naperville (see #5).

4. There is no mention here of proximity to Chicago. Naperville stands on its own with over 140,000 residents even though Chicago is accessible by car or train within roughly an hour. Would a road trip to a smaller and (perceived to be) safer location – a suburb – be more appealing to many Americans than a global city?

5. Does this accurately represent what Naperville is? On one hand, yes. The downtown features of Naperville represent a unique collection of recreational and consumer options within a suburban downtown. On the other hand, no. Naperville is a sprawling suburb marked by numerous subdivisions, strip malls, and lots of driving. Naperville is unusual both because of its downtown and its size and wealth with the latter two features perhaps not providing much appeal for a road trip.

Suggestion that tiny houses face snobbish responses because of links to lower classes

An overview of tiny houses in the United States (though no mention of how many there actually are) includes an interesting bit about social class:

But the main obstacle is a legal one: most municipalities and towns ban residents from living year-round in anything on wheels, and often have statutes requiring homes to be at least 900 square feet…

Historically in American culture, bungalows, caravans and mobile homes have a bad reputation — they are seen as badly made and decidedly lower-class.

But the Berriers’ home is impeccably decorated with a bathtub, a sunroom and a movie screen — no “trailer trash” here.

“There are preconceived notions. They haven’t seen it enough. It’s just something new. I think that’s the problem,” Berrier said.

This leads to a conundrum: if Americans love driving and homeownership, why do they dislike mobile or smaller housing so much?

The less positive reactions to tiny houses suggests it is not solely about owning a vehicle or home; the kind of vehicle or home matters. Driving is good but driving a nicer car is better. Owning a home is good but owning a bigger, more permanent home is clearly superior. Cars and homes are functional items and status symbols, important social markers of who a person is and desires to be.

A more functional approach to housing might be more open to tiny houses. People need a place to live at a reasonable cost? Affordable housing is scarce? Homeless people need residences? Let’s make it happen. Change zoning guidelines. Make it cool to downsize.

On the other hand, there are plenty of tiny house buyers who prefer getaways or luxury touches, not long-term housing in such a small size. It would be easy for the tiny house movement to be co-opted by those with resources and social status. Those people might be able to get tiny houses into certain places where they might otherwise not be allowed, but their motives would run against others who want tiny houses because of their reduced footprint and simpler lifestyle.

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.