The Driverless, Auto-Oriented Urbanist Future

I was glad today to see that the California Public Utilities Commission lifted its fines against Lyft, of which I am an avid fan. Lyft, for those of you who don’t know it, is an incredibly awesome app that lets you call a car with your phone for below-taxi rates.  Disclosure – a friend of mine works there.  It’s very interesting, in that it moves in an industry that seems at first competitive but actually turns out to be a highly regulated industry.  Which is weird – given the vast number of cars and people capable of driving them in a large city, it seems supply shouldn’t be a constraint.  But the taxi lobby is a powerful one in San Francisco, Lyft’s home, and in most cities.

Serious question – how do the taxi operators and car companies survive the introduction of driverless cars combined with the Lyft business model?  Right now the supply of cars is huge, but at any given time they’re mostly unused.  The business model of Lyft alongside driverless cars seems pretty obvious – use spare driverless cars to deliver people where they want, when they want.  Given the vast supply of currently-spare-capacity, it seems that the need for raw numbers of cars should plummet.  The taxi industry can be killed without the need for driverless cars, but they will make it quicker.  However, it’s harder to see how the car companies can continue to sell current volumes as the demand for cars collapses.

Of more immediate interest, to what degree should this future scenario disincentivize urbanists from pursuing mass-transit expansion today?  TaaS (transport-as-a-service) should render obsolete most transit options other than extremely-high-capacity subway service and intercity rail – it’s easy to see it killing off a lot of bus service, especially once the cost-per-vehicle-mile-traveled starts to drop dramatically as the technology gets cheaper and older cars are retrofitted.

It makes me think that if you’re in favor of an urbanist agenda, the number-one priority should be zoning reform.  Maybe that seems roundabout, but here’s my thinking – if the driverless car revolution happens sooner than we think, a lot of the investments in transit will turn out to be white elephants.  Who needs an expensive light-rail line when grabbing a robotic Lyft-type ride is easier?  On the other hand, if we can succeed in getting greater density than the economics of developing the robot-Lyft-company gets easier and easier sooner and sooner.  In the meantime, things like buses can serve as a gap solution.

So basically, driverless cars => abandon the cause of transit investment in favor of greater density.  The non-car-oriented city will follow in time.

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