Autonomous Cars Are Our Real Future


Long a hotbed of new technologies, California insists on seeing its transit future in the rear mirror. Rather than use innovative approaches to getting people around and to work, our state insists on spending billions on early 20th century technology such as streetcars and light rail that have diminishing relevance to our actual lives.

California’s roads may be among the worst in the country, but the state seems more than anxious to spend billions on transit systems that are losing market share. Despite spending over $15 billion on trains since 1990, Los Angeles transit market share and ridership have dropped. As one member of the California Transportation Commission notes, the state’s planners largely ignore the role of technologies — including home-based work, ride hailing and autonomous vehicles — that offer the best hope for resolving our transportation woes.

Part of the problem lies in geography: the state refuses to address transportation needs within the reality of continued suburbanization of jobs and people. In major metropolitan areas since 2010, more than 90 percent of the population growth in the six largest metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs and exurbs, and less than 10 percent in the urban core favored by California’s policies. As growth heads to places such as south Orange County, the Inland Empire and northern L.A. County, the relevance of traditional transit — which works largely for downtown locations — continues to weaken.

Getting beyond the transit fantasy

Rather than hop on the rails, more residents are addressing traffic woes by simply staying home. By 2015, more Los Angeles-area residents were working at home than were taking transit, something also true across the country. Since 1990, the number of people working at home increased eight times as rapidly as the number of people using the transit system. The number of people driving increased even more rapidly compared to transit.

Promoting home-based work is one way California can develop a transit future that addresses the actual needs of of our people, who overwhelmingly live and work in suburban locations. The state really has one traditional functioning downtown — San Francisco — but most residents everywhere else favor personalized transportation because they commute to dispersed and diverse location. Already the convenience of driving keeps most of us in our cars and, for those who don’t want to drive, Uber and Lyft, both California companies, have become the carrier of choice.

We need a new vision

California government justifies its policies on environmental grounds, but increasingly the state’s priority is to reduce driving in order to produce its utopia of ever more crowded, densely packed cities. Yet these policies so far have not made the state a leader in GHG reduction but, as a new Chapman report reveals, actually behind the pack of most other states.

As the state emphasizes transportation that most people won’t use, it has favored a “road diet” to keep the freeways clogged. Against all market signals, it is determined to force people into “transit-oriented” areas, even as ridership falls. This approach ignores strategies that address mobility in ways both environmentally friendly way and also in touch with human realities. They largely ignore, for example, the potential of the ultimate, low-GHG technology, which is home-based work, a mode of work access that already is more widely used in the state, including the dense Los Angeles and San Jose areas, than transit.

But the biggest change, perhaps unfolding over the next two decades, will be the autonomous vehicle. MIT’s Alan Berger suggests this new technology will free up huge amounts of space in cities that now go for wide roads and garages, while finally liberating the overwhelmingly suburban majority from dependence on traditional cars. These new vehicles, Berger suggests, could be powered by solar power, stored in special garages, and be on call when needed. They will also likely drive a new dispersion to the outer suburbs as commutes become more tolerable, according to recent Bain study.

Streetcars, bullet trains and other waste needs to stop

Intoxicated with their transit obsession, our political leaders continue to fund ill-conceived projects such as Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail system with costs that have more than doubled since initial planning. Despite considerable scaling back, it is more than 10 years behind schedule. As many as two-thirds of Californians no longer want to fund it.

Possibly even more boneheaded are streetcar lines, which almost everywhere in the county are performing well below projections and losing riders. The construction of a 4.5-mile, $400 million trolley between Santa Ana and Garden Grove follows a route that promises few riders and seems doomed to a long money-losing career. Atlanta’s disastrously under-performing trolley has been nicknamed by some locals “a streetcar named undesirable.” Maybe we can do the same for the Santa Ana line — how does “a streetcar named stupidity” sound?

All this is all the more unconscionable at a time when more efficient, less costly technologies — electric cars, work at home and autonomous vehicles — all beckon with promise of better environmental results and greater mobility and efficiency. California may have developed many of these technologies, but our leaders have been maddeningly slow to even consider how to adopt them.

This piece originally appeared in The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo: Ed and Eddie, via Flickr, using CC License.