Self-driving cars could benefit suburban residents the most

While reading an article considering what daily life may be like with autonomous vehicles, a thought hit me: suburbs – compared to cities and rural areas – will benefit the most from self-driving cars. Sure, cities could remove a lot of cars off the streets and enhance pedestrian life. Rural areas could benefit from easier driving and trucking. Yet, as far as daily life is concerned, not having to pay attention to driving could help suburbanites the most as so much of their life involves driving from one place to another.

Here are the primary advantages of self-driving vehicles for the suburbs:

1. The commute to work changes as passengers can now work or relax or sleep on the way.

2. The other various trips in the suburbs now can be more enjoyable (like commuting in #1).

3. Suburbanites do not need to own as many vehicles.

4. Two groups disadvantaged by auto-dependent suburbs – teenagers and the elderly – now have access to transportation.

5. Suburbanites can live even further away from work and urban centers, possibly providing cheaper housing as well as more options regarding what communities they can live in.

6. The cheap goods suburbanites expect from big box stores and online retailers may be even cheaper as retailers and businesses also utilize autonomous vehicles.

7. Suburban congestion and traffic will be decreased due to both the new vehicles handling roads better and a reduction in vehicles (#3 above).

Granted, these reasons might not account for the ongoing costs of driving. For example, suburbanites may not need to own as many cars or may enjoy their regular drives more but roads still need to be built and maintained.

Rhode Island signs give cost, time under construction data

For over a year, Rhode Island has posted interesting signs in roadway construction areas:

Along with the name of the project, the signs note its estimated cost, the expected completion time, and a stoplight-style red, yellow and green dot system to show whether the project is “on-time and on-budget.”

“RIDOT believes the signs provide accountability and transparency by keeping the public aware of the status of the projects and helps keep the Department’s [project management] staff responsible for delivering them on time and on budget,” wrote DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin in an email…

Projects scheduled to finish on or before their expected completion date get green dots on their RhodeWorks signs. Projects that are behind schedule by six months or less get yellow dots on their signs and projects more than six months late get red dots.

There are no yellow dots on the budget side. Projects are either on budget and green or over budget and red.

Given how easy it is for infrastructure projects to go over time and over budget, this is an interesting approach. At the least, it provides the driver – the taxpayer – some idea of whether the project is meeting several key goals. However, as the article notes, it is less clear how this public information than translates into change in completing projects. Perhaps future signs should include additional information:

-The cost to everyone for the extra time and money involved (if the project is indeed over budget and past its intended completion date). Think of the business lost and the time wasted in traffic.

-Changes to the infrastructure process as a result of what was learned in this particular project.

-The punishment meted out to contractors and/or government officials for not meeting the goals.

I wonder if one incentive of making this data public is to overinflate cost and completion estimates so as to avoid public scrutiny through the signs.

“Politics of pavement” amidst the start of construction season

Commuters and taxpayers may be unhappy with annoying roadwork but as this summary of upcoming projects in the Chicago region reminds us, roadwork is political:

With no state budget in sight as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner feuds with Democrats, the idea of a capital plan to fix infrastructure seems as likely as unicorns in hard hats.

That disconnect is not only strangling transportation funding in Illinois, it’s also thwarting a pet project of Rauner’s — adding tolled express lanes to I-55 in Cook and DuPage counties…

For the Illinois tollway, money’s not a problem. But the agency is locked in a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railroad over land it wants for I-490, a ring road around the west side of O’Hare International Airport.

If Canadian Pacific wins support from federal regulators in a pending case, it’s a potential catastrophe for the tollway.

Roads are power? Any major infrastructure project involves lots of money, voters, and jobs. Additionally, in a country where driving is so important, construction on major roads is a big deal.

So, is anyone winning the political battle through roads in the Chicago region? Big city mayors like to claim that they are different than national politicians because the mayors have to get things done. The same may be true for governors on infrastructure issues. Presumably, limiting the political battles over roads helps everyone win as costs are reduced (prices for big projects only go up over time) and residents can start experiencing the benefits sooner.

Honor a president…with a highway named after them

Chicago likes to honor famous people and politicians by affixing their names to roads so what would be a fitting honor for former president Barack Obama?

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, submitted a resolution to have the entirety of Interstate 294 named after President Obama. However, in the same week, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, indicated that he was moving to submit legislation that would rename much of Interstate 55 that passes through Illinois as the “Barack Obama Expressway.” The moves in Springfield led to chatter in the press and elsewhere about how to honor President Obama and his legacy.

Perhaps because driving is so ingrained in American culture officials like to rename roads and highways. A highway seems so dull here: it will be a staple of morning traffic reports (“The Obama is clogged from 159th to Cicero”) and make it into countless digital and print atlases. I imagine it takes time for a name change to switch over into normal use: is I-55 the Southwest Highway, the original name, or I-55 (when it was adopted into the Federal Interstate System), or the Stevenson (to honor an Illinois governor and twice-failed presidential candidate. How many people who live in the area say they drive the Reagan?

But, there are plenty of other infrastructure options: how about O’Hare Airport (named after a World War II aviator), one of the most important airports in the American system? How about a branch of the L? Think how many people travel on and would see the Obama Line and perhaps some politicians would rather be known for promoting mass transit. Of course, if you didn’t like a politician (not the case here), you could attach their name to something less worthy like a sewage treatment plant or a viaduct.

 

Getting big companies to pay more for local infrastructure

The mayor of Cupertino, California wants Apple to pay more for local roads and other services:

Many people in Cupertino, a 60,000-person town in the heart of Silicon Valley, are beginning to organize around their overburdened city. They claim the region is struggling with aging infrastructure and booming companies whose effective tax rate is often quite low. Frustrated by traffic and noise, some in Cupertino are trying to put a stop to more development, which they argue brings more congestion on the roads, parking and train system. But Chang says limiting new development would damage the regional economy and that the real solution should be higher taxes on the wealthy and companies such as Apple…

Convincing local politicians to battle Apple is hard, Chang said. He recently proposed that Apple – which is building a massive new campus its own employees nicknamed the Death Star, or more favorably, The Spaceship – should give $100m to improve city infrastructure. To move on the proposal, Chang only needed to get a single vote ‘yes’ among the three other eligible council members. He failed to get that vote…Meanwhile, the mayor of Cupertino plans to keep pushing Apple to contribute more to the town. Apple paid $9.2m in tax revenue to Cupertino in 2012to 2013, which was about 18% of the city’s general fund budget, according to an economic impact report. Coincidentally that was also exactly the same amount CEO Tim Cook was paid in 2014.

Chang is now working on proposals for a business employer tax that would make companies with more than 100 workers pay $1,000 per employee. Chang argues the employer tax is less regressive than the competing program: a higher sales tax.

Local politicians are often in a tough position in situations like this. Large companies provide prestige and jobs. Many communities would love to have white-collar offices that contribute property taxes and opportunities for local residents. These are such desirable facilities that states and communities race to the bottom in providing tax breaks. (See an example here as well as contrast this to a rural town rejecting a meat processing plant.) Yet, large companies may make heavy use of local services as well as be perceived as sending most of their profits out of the community. So, what do you do when your town needs to pay for roads or the police department or schools and the majority of residents don’t want to pay higher taxes?

I’m guessing that Cupertino has little leverage, particularly if fellow officials and residents are unwilling to go against the big company. Yet, perhaps sustained pressure and some negative publicity might help; one Chicago suburb and its large hospital reached an agreement to help the community meet basic infrastructure needs.

IL legislator drops tax by miles driven plan

Following up on last week’s post, it now appears Illinois will not have a new driving tax anytime soon:

The Illinois Senate president says he will not pursue a proposal to pay for road construction by taxing motorists by the miles they drive.

John Cullerton is a Chicago Democrat. He floated the idea last week because revenue from taxes on gasoline is declining. Cars are more fuel-efficient but they still wear out roads…

Cullerton posted on social media Friday that he intended the plan — which the Executive Committee aired on Wednesday — to spark debate about more efficient ways to fund road-building.

He says he “received a lot of constructive feedback” but will not pursue his plan.

Such a move was likely unpopular but withdrawing the idea doesn’t help the state move closer to the issue: how are roads going to be maintained and improved? Few people like to pay increased costs for infrastructure but they will certainly dislike it if the roads are not in good shape or major repairs cause headaches and future borrowing down the road.

With gas at a relatively cheap point, isn’t it time to at least consider raising the gas tax?

Cities will need to adapt to self-driving cars

If self-driving cars arrive soon, cities may not be ready:

Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.

The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.

There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.

Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?

It sounds like there is a lot of good that could be done in helping to reverse the changes that occurred from the early to mid-1900s where cities were altered in significant ways – wider streets and smaller sidewalks, the construction of highways – to make it easier for cars to operate in the city. Of course, making some of these roadway changes doesn’t necessarily lead to a Jane Jacobs urban paradise. Take downtown Manhattan: you could reduce the size of roads and give pedestrians more space. Yet, the scale of the buildings often would not help; you can create all sorts of sidewalks but if they are shrouded in shadows from skyscrapers, is it inviting? Or, adding more pedestrian space may not necessarily lead to more lively street life if there isn’t a mix of uses to attract people. On the whole, having to emphasize cars less could be very attractive but a lot of additional work would need to be done to truly take advantage of the opportunity.