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In a comment on one of the many transportation-related posts that have circulated Village 14 this week, Councilor Jim Cote suggested that we post the article from the Boston Globe Magazine which takes the stance that self-driving cars will make the T obsolete. Titled Why Self Driving Cars will Kill the T, Tom Keane makes the implication is that investment in public transit is a waste of money. 

Given the choice between an AV and public transit, who wouldn’t choose the faster, more convenient, and lower-priced alternative? That’s the predicament the T will face. As AVs quickly gain commuters’ favor, fewer will take public transit. Fare collections will decline, requiring either higher fares — which would drive away even more riders — or more subsidies. Eventually, we’ll simply conclude that trains and trolleys are things of the past. Like the horses, buggies and stables of old, they’ll become relics.

And honestly, the article could be a predictor of the future. There is a future scenario in which people just order up electric automated vehicles and get door-to-door service. It’s a scenario that can get horrifying when you take it to its logical conclusion, in which people are isolated in cocoons and travel becomes a low-cost, low-complexity endeavor. In that world, a 60-mile commute, in which you spend your time watching a movie, reading or doing work, alone in your cocoon that drops you right at your door, becomes nothing at all. Worse is when the sidewalks become clogged with smaller AVs delivering packages to people who aren’t even venturing out to the grocery.

There is an alternate future in which cities take control of their own roads and start to charge AV companies for operating on them. In that world, using licensing, planning and free market levers to encourage different uses are entirely possible. 

As an example, it’s easy to see people going to a Red Sox game in an AV and entirely bypassing the Green Line. I mean, why be shoved in and stand for 30 minutes, only to have to walk a few blocks to get to the game? People do it today, in part, because of cost. It’s cheaper to pay the T fare than to spend lavishly on parking AND sit in the traffic on the way out. Also, if you’re taking the T you can probably have that extra beer.

So what if Boston made it more expensive to take your AV right up to Fenway? Maybe they geofence a half-mile to a mile around the park and implement a 4x surge price during the hours before and after the game. They could even provide exemptions to those who are disabled. We already do this with parking, so it’s not inconsistent with existing policy. Now you’re using policy and the free market to help encourage a different choice. 

What if we charged AVs to use our streets and then earmarked some of that money to subsidize public transit? What if we lowered speed limits on our roads to keep those AVs from moving faster, making the T and public transit a faster alternative?

The implications of these vehicles is pretty staggering. Think about the parking lots that will no longer be needed, how do we use them? Consider how we come go from our houses today (many of us use backdoors or garage entrances that are close to our cars) and how that changes when your primary point of entry is the street. Are we going to want our homes built closer to the curb?  What do we do with those garage spaces? How are they best utilized? How do we rethink density requirements when the increase in traffic isn’t about privately owned vehicles but self-driving cars? 

The future isn’t all that far off, think about how the iPhone changed our lives in less than a decade, or how the horse and buggy gave way to the automobile in about the same time. We can stand still and let the AV companies dictate the future, or, as a city, we can look for policies that make sense. 

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