Autonomous Vehicles: Hype and Resistance

I’m in San Francisco this week hanging out with a relative and everywhere I go I see driverless Cruise and Waymo cars inching about the streets. Based on my years in transportation advocacy and my highly uniformed opinion, I have two prognostications about these things:

1. Autonomous cars will mostly, kinda work in some places but will require significant alterations to the built environment to function fully. They will bump up against that conceptual horizon at which it becomes impossible quantize the unquantizable. Human beings and the environments we create, combined with the complexity of the weather result in unknowable unknowns that no computer algorithm can anticipate. I can maybe see these things bumbling about the calmer parts of San Francisco but good luck in Los Angeles where there’s a culture of speeding and sociopathic driving, or snow, ice, fog and all the other variables of Mother Nature.

As Paris Marx points out in his book Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, accommodating self driving vehicles will replay what happened in the early 20th century when the automobile and oil industries pushed for significant changes to our roads and cities to make cars work. For instance, these powerful economic and political industries turned the simple act of crossing the street into “jaywalking”. Then there’s all the parking lots, highways, gas stations and other infrastructure that worsened the quality of our built environment. As Marx points out, autonomous vehicle advocates have already speculated about gates for pedestrians at intersections as well as requiring all pedestrians and cyclists to wear beacons.

2. Politicians of both parities will be seduced by Silicon Valley’s hype and money instead of doing the boring and tedious work of building out and improving existing public transportation. This will prolong the failed embrace of the automobile and their effect on our cities and climate. Improvements that could happen right now, like better bus service and new rail lines, will be postponed indefinitely.

But autonomous vehicles are not popular and the reaction to them reflects a growing uneasiness with Silicon Valley’s products. Activists in San Francisco have discovered that if you put a cone on the hood these things it will stop them, an echo of the early 20th century when mobs would swarm and beat up wealthy automobile owners. I’ve noticed that the Cruise cars have a phrase stenciled on their sensor apparatus warning, “Records audio and video,” as if the company knows they are hated. San Franciscans seem both horrified and delighted that one got stuck in wet concrete this week and a bunch bricked themselves due to “connectivity” issues relating to a large music festival. Despite these concerns, the California Public Utilities commission voted to let these companies start charging for rides.

I see some hope in my own Los Angeles neighborhood. The councilman I volunteered for during the election, Hugo Soto-Martinez, is about to begin a process of bus and bike improvements in his district. Unlike his corporate predecessor, Soto-Martinez plans on enlisting volunteers to engage in door-to door conversations with residents and business owners about these improvements, listening to people’s concerns and carefully explaining the benefits of the changes he wants to make. This is the hard work of politics, something our tech overlords try avoid and subvert.

The changes we need to make are a matter of hands-on politics, not waiting around for some grand technological fix. While technology can definitely contribute to improving mass transit, I think we’re going to need to lean more on rhetoric to shift us all away from the car-centric errors of the 20th century. I have some notions about the type of arguments to make but that will have to wait for another blog post. I’ll just say that I think autonomous cars are a distraction from this vital work.

Wait there’s more . . .

I can’t help but point out that one of the best documents of what cities looked like in America before “jaywalking” became a thing is this film of Market Street in San Francisco in 1906, shot just four days before the devastating earthquake and fire. To modern eyes this street scene seems chaotic but I would argue that we should see it as more democratic since no one type of transportation, horses, cars, trains, pedestrians or cyclists have priority. In our present time if you can afford to own a car you get priority over everyone else. Autonomous vehicles are just a continuation of this bias.

At the end of Market Street in this film you can see the Ferry Building which was obscured by a double decked highway built in 1959. When this ugly concrete mass collapsed in the 1989 earthquake it was, thankfully, demolished and not replaced. Hopefully similar wisdom will prevail and we’ll stop building infrastructure for private transportation.


Vincent Woo surreptitiously stuck a GoPro to the front of a BART train to make this magical film, Tunnel Vision. An SF Gate reporter described the vibe in the sold out theater where it screened this month:

The best part of the experience was not the surreal footage but the chance to share it with an enthusiastic audience. The crowd was peppered with San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency merchandise: Muni hoodies and BART beanies and Christmas sweaters. When the train pulled into a station, the audience sometimes clapped and cheered. (16th and Mission got the most cheers. I tried to start a round of applause at Powell Street, but it didn’t catch on.) A man sitting in front of me began headbanging to the chime of the closing doors.

Woo has generously uploaded Tunnel Vision for us all to enjoy.

News From Nowhere

We did some traveling last week for the first time in two years and I flew for the first time since 2013. On our trip to the in-law’s reunion I was struck by how much of this country is made up of liminal spaces, as if the whole landscape were one long, dead mall corridor leading nowhere.

It’s common to see these vistas as a kind of moral/aesthetic failure rather than the landscape of a capitalist system that has to always be in motion or it will end up in crisis. It’s no coincidence that most of our land is devoted to constant churn, movement and commerce. As David Harvey points out, the first thing that president G.W. Bush suggested we all do before the dust even settled on the World Trade Center was not to stop, contemplate, pray or meditate but to, “Go shopping!” That is, to drive to the mall and spend some money. Capitalism’s need for constant motion results in a landscape that operates like a long, circular airport corridor with no end. The point is the churn not the destination.

It’s shouldn’t be a surprise that in a system based on motion and individualism that the automobile would dominate. For years I fought for better bike infrastructure here in Los Angeles. The enemy was “car-centric planning” or so I thought. But we live not in car-centric cities but capitalist cities. Cars are just one more way to build capital. They are, after all, packaged debt that just happens to have an inefficient mode of transit attached to it. We’re all forced into cars because that’s the best way to wring profit out of the transportation sector. For this reason we should never shame people for driving a car because we live in a system that forces us to.

Our airport hotel even had an upscale weed shop in the parking lot.

Denver, where I was visiting the in-laws has many beautiful streets, parks, the stunning Rocky Mountains in the distance (obscured by the fires burning in California) and one hell of a lot of weed shops. To be clear I fully support legalized pot but I can’t help but think that so many people are self medicating to relieve the misery of meaningless low paid work, the anxiety of the pandemic and life in this meaningless corridor leading to nowhere.

It would be a mistake to just go along and accept this world as it is, to think that it’s just a matter of morality or that we can somehow go back to a previous “golden age” way of doing things. As Angela Davis said in a lecture in 2014, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Let’s work on exiting this endless corridor.

Nithya Raman for LA Council District 4!

During my years serving on the board of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition I learned that Los Angeles is one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional cities in the U.S. It’s run by a machine, is fundamentally un-democratic and, to top it all off, incompetent. Our city’s appalling homelessness crisis and transportation gridlock is the result of this disappointing leadership.

If there’s a silver lining to this dark cloud it’s that things have gotten so bad that a new generation of activists is rising up to toss out the incumbents. Last Friday, Root Simple friend and podcast guest Jessica Rath hosted an intimate gathering with one of those activists, Nithya Raman, who is running for Council District 4.

In the course of the evening, Raman discussed her homeless policy, how to make the city council more democratic and ways to escape gridlocked traffic. Raman has an urban planning degree from M.I.T., helped start the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, served as executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment and worked for the city on homeless policy. Frankly, she’s one of those people who have already accomplished what would take me ten lifetimes to get around to. She is much more qualified than the incumbent David Ryu, who has a thin resume and a record of opposing housing and transportation improvements.

This is an important election. City councilpersons in Los Angeles wield much more power than the mayor. CD 4 has a population of 253,000 people making it larger than most U.S. cities. If you live in CD4, a gerrymandered district covering Los Feliz, part of Koreatown, Sherman Oaks and North Hollywood please vote for Nithya Raman!

Moms On Bikes

Kelly and I spent a good part of the week going through boxes of old photos and found this one of my mom giving me a ride on her bike. I’m guessing this must be sometime around 1968. My mom liked to ride bikes, an unusual activity for adults in Southern California in the 1960s. She took me all over Culver City this way until one day when we took a tumble, probably caused by a pothole. I vaguely recall a long haired and bearded young man helping us off the pavement (that I can remember “hippies” shows how old I am). None of us were injured but it shook up my mom enough that she didn’t bike after that accident.

I found this photo on the same day that I read a sad story in the New York Times about a sharp increase in bike and pedestrian accidents in the past few years. And just last week, here in Los Angeles, a child was killed in a crosswalk due to a driver being “blinding by the early morning sun.” Like so much of the bloodshed on our roads the driver will, likely, face no consequences.

The mayhem on our streets has, ironically, scared me back into driving more and biking less. I know a lot of my fellow cyclists feel the same way. There are too many SUVs, too much texting, too many angry drivers and too little concern from our corrupt elected officials.

We are living in a time of climate, economic and political crisis. If we care about the children in this world who are the age I was in this photo, we need to all stand up and make a difference. We need bike lanes, road diets, bus only lanes, public housing and we need to ask our elected leaders not to take any money from fossil fuel and automotive interests. The minor inconveniences we will have to put up with in a transition to a walkable and bikable future are small compared with the rising seas, fires and climate-based refugee crises our children will face.