Automated Vehicles Will Make Our Streets Worse

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Let me provide a simple mind experiment. I’m going to call it the “Cambridge Test” after my experience at the Harvard campus for a Strong Towns speaking engagement. In Cambridge, I witnessed many people jaywalking. In fact, I saw Cornel West jaywalk, meandering across a street midblock. It was very common. People, particularly students, would step out into traffic and cross wherever it was most convenient for them.

And, magically, the human-powered cars stopped. The sheer volume of people out walking, along with the tight design of the streets, seemed to make drivers more cautious and responsive to the random chance someone on foot would cross. And the people responded to this opportunity by taking advantage of it. I witnessed random groups induced to cross wherever and whenever they had a need. It was a very nice environment.

So, here’s the Cambridge Test: When perfected, what will an automated vehicle do on that nasty stroad in your community, the one where the cars today drive too fast and the drivers are too oblivious, where nobody sane would dare to cross? When all cars are AV, what happens when someone crosses midblock?

The obvious answer is that the vehicles stop and allow the person to cross. They don’t run that person down. They don’t kill them. The automated vehicle will be programmed to always stop when someone steps out into traffic. As a society, we would not have it any other way.

So, knowing this, who is ever going to stop and wait at another traffic signal? What person on foot, in their right mind, would wait for a gap to open so they can cross without impacting the flow of traffic? Nobody.

I have to walk across a nasty stroad every time I go downtown. Why would I wait my turn to cross in minus-20-degree weather, with the wind whipping at my face, when all I need to do is step out and traffic comes to a complete stop? I wouldn’t.

And that is not acceptable. Humans will not be allowed to interfere with the free flow of traffic. Our economy will depend on it, after all. All those commuters who need to get to their jobs, all those potential customers who need to get where they are going. We can’t have some Cornel West-type meandering out into traffic wherever they feel like it. There’s too much at stake in maintaining efficiency.

So, it will be against the law to step out into traffic except at designated places and times.

Well Chuck, how is that different than today’s jaywalking ordinances? Exactly! It’s not. We don’t even need new regulations, just the courage to enforce existing laws.

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