We don’t need driverless cars — just give people more choices
Innovation in transportation doesn’t mean making one single travel mode go faster — it means giving people more good choices to get where they need to go. Many of these choices already exist. The innovation lies in figuring out how to bring them on to our streets and into our lives more effectively.
The history of the innovation of the phone provides a good analogy here.
Phones used to look like this.
These phones did one thing: they let you talk to other people not in the room with you. That one thing was a great thing.
Then the phone was put in a car, and soon after that the phone could fit in your pocket.
This too was great- the phone had become more convenient by being more readily accessible than phones at fixed locations.
But these innovations barely scratch the surface of the innovation that transformed our phones. Real phone innovation came from the “smartphone” that offered much more than just a voice call. Instead of offering only voice calling, this portable device now provides an entire menu of communication choices: voice calling, text, email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and many more.
The smartphone also has a bunch of other useful and entertaining features: the internet, a GPS map, a camera, a calendar, video streaming, games, a calculator, audiobooks, a flashlight...
Basically, smartphones are so much more than just phones now. That’s why they are “smart” — their intelligence is literally derived from the degree to which they deviate from the core function they originally started with.
The same exact logic applies to our streets: smart or innovative streets are streets that expand beyond one core function and offer a spectrum of possibilities. And most of these currently exist already.
Innovation on the Street
On the street, the act of moving cars is similar to the voice calling feature on a phone. It’s an important function and has long been the primary focus of people working in the field. But we can do so many more within the space of our streets than simply focusing on better ways to move cars.
Our streets are for walking, biking, taking the bus, or taking the light rail. Streets are places for people to sip coffee on a bench, to eat a meal at a table outside restaurant. They are places for musicians to hone their craft, for people to read a book in a curbside park shaded by leafy trees. Some streets are places for kids to ride their bikes out in front of their homes without going anywhere, or where they can bike through the neighborhood for an ice cream cone.
For too long we’ve focused so much on moving (and parking) cars that our streets don’t do any of these great things nearly as well as they should. It’s as if none of the apps on our phone worked well because all the computer engineers had spent their time optimizing the voice calling feature.
When people step onto the sidewalk, they should be welcomed to a great menu of choices. Just like when they pull out their phone. Or like when they walk into Chipotle.
Even if choices exist in theory, that’s not enough. For instance, streets need to be designed to make walking and biking a great choice for everyone, not merely for the most adventurous among us. If someone is worried they are going to die doing something, then that’s not a great choice.
This is why programs like Vision Zero are a great example of innovation, albeit not as sexy as what Elon Musk is doing. Vision Zero in LA is using finely grained data analysis to determine why collisions are occurring at specific locations, and then trying to fix those problematic locations with surgical safety interventions.
Vision Zero is actually incredibly innovative. It means making thousands of tiny improvements to make all travel modes safer, which is hugely important for creating great choices on our streets.
The Example of Dockless Bikeshare
“Dockless Bikeshare” is another good example of how this innovation will occur, because it is the kind of small, incremental innovation that when clustered with other like-minded improvements will cohere into a more robust mobility menu.
If you haven’t seen it in your community yet, dockless bikeshare is a bikeshare system in which bikes can be picked up almost anywhere around town through the use of a smartphone app. After unlocking and using the bike, one can leave the bike in any reasonable place, like an unused part of the sidewalk. The app on your phone processes a small fee for the ride.
Dockless bikeshare is not innovative because it has technology that allows you to use your phone to unlock the bike and buy a ride- though that tech is definitely cool. Dockless bikeshare is innovative because it gives people one more option to get around — these bikes are terrific if you want to make a quick trip on a bike without the hassle of actually having to look after it for the rest of the day.
Staying with the phone metaphor, I like to think of dockless bikeshare as the text messages of transportation. They are not “game-changing,” but rather an important addition that works well within a larger spectrum of growing options. Look at the parallels:
Telegrams (short messages with abbreviated spellings sent long distances) have been around for almost two centuries- since their invention in England and the US in 1838.
Bicycles (non-motorized vehicles with two wheels arranged consecutively) have been around for almost two centuries- since their invention in Germany in 1817.
Over the 20th century, the rise of the telephone in the US saw the decline of the telegrams as fewer people used them.
Over the 20th century, the rise of the car in the US saw the decline of bicycles as fewer people used them (especially adults).
Telegrams returned to popularity in the early 2000’s, albeit in a new format (texts) enabled by the boom in smartphones.
Bicycles have the potential to return to popularity in the 2000’s, albeit in a new format (dockless bikeshare) enabled by the boom in smartphones.
Some more general similarities between texts and dockless bikes/bikes in general:
Texts will never fully replace voice calling for most people in the US and that’s fine- they still enhance our quality of life by providing people with an additional way to communicate.
Dockless bikes will never fully replace cars for most people in the US and that’s fine- they still enhance our quality of life by providing people with an additional way to travel.
Even people who rely on voice calls for most communication appreciate the option to use texts in certain circumstances, like when they are in a rush or in a meeting.
Even people who rely on driving for most trips will appreciate the option to use dockless bikes in certain circumstances, like grabbing lunch or getting exercise while running an errand.
For people who don’t like talking on the phone, texts are part of a whole range of ways to communicate that make life much better for them.
For people who don’t like relying on a car, dockless bikes are part of a whole range of ways to travel that make life much better for them.
What this analogy reveals is that transportation innovation can work by simply taking what has already been done and making it work better in the existing landscape.
Real Innovation is not that cool
The real innovation on our streets is unlikely to involve some fancy new autonomous vehicle, supercharged tunnel, or flying car.
It’s much more simple: (a) start with our existing streets and (b) make them better by offering many more great ways to use them. Most of these ways to travel have been around for a long time, and it just takes programs like Vision Zero or technology like dockless bikeshare to bring them to heightened functionality.
For sure, this is much more simple in concept than in execution, since lots of of people don’t like change. But bundling a bunch of incremental changes is where the opportunity is, rather than some big singular “gamechanger.”
To go full circle back to the phone metaphor, Steve Jobs is perhaps a better example of innovation than Elon Musk. With the iphone, Jobs introduced an elegant platform that hosted a wide range of uses beyond the traditional use. He took what existed and added other things to it, instead of just of focusing on improving the existing thing. Maybe Elon Musk will move in that direction, but he hasn’t to date.
To sum up: All we need is to give people the same range of options for mobility that we currently give them for communication and entertainment. That would be real transportation innovation.
See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.