I’m looking at two photographs of the main street of the small town in which I was born. Both are taken from the same vantage point – looking up the hill to the T-junction at the top. The two photographs are separated by nearly a century: the first was taken in the 1930s, the second sometime in the last few years.
Topographically, the street remains largely unchanged: it’s a straight road with two- or three-storey shops and houses on either side. But the two photographs show completely different streets. The 1930s one shows a spacious thoroughfare, with people walking on the pavements on both sides of the street: here and there, two or three individuals stand in the road, possibly engaged in conversation. The contemporary photograph shows a narrow, congested gorge. The pavements are crowded with pedestrians, but there are no people on the road. In fact, in some places, one cannot even see its surface.
Why the difference between the two photographs? You know the answer: cars, vans and traffic. Both sides of the contemporary street have got lines of parked vehicles, effectively reducing the width of the road by 12ft. And there’s a traffic jam, which means that even the vehicles that aren’t parked are stationary.
This picture is repeated in millions of towns and cities worldwide. A visiting Martian anthropologist would conclude that humans worshipped the automobile. Actually, you don’t have to be a Martian to marvel at it. Just open your front door. “Next time you walk outside,” writes John Zimmer in his essay The Third Transportation Revolution, “pay really close attention to the space around you. Look at how much land is devoted to cars – and nothing else. How much space parked cars take up lining both sides of the street and how much of our cities goes unused covered by parking lots. It becomes obvious – we’ve built our communities entirely around cars. And for the most part, we’ve built them for cars that aren’t even moving. The average vehicle is used only 4% of the time and parked the other 96%.”
Mr Zimmer has a dog in this fight – he’s co-founder of Lyft, a ride-sharing outfit that competes with Uber, so the usual caveats apply. Nevertheless, his essay is a thoughtful reflection on how the automobile transformed – and destroyed – our cities and towns. He invites us to imagine “what our world could look like if we found a way to take most of these cars off the road. It would be a world with less traffic and less pollution. A world where we need less parking – where streets can be narrowed and sidewalks widened. It’s a world where we can construct new housing and small businesses on parking lots across the country – or turn them into green spaces and parks. That’s a world built around people, not cars.”
Zimmer thinks that fleets of self-driving cars will be commonplace in the relatively near future and that their availability will give us most of the advantages of private car ownership without the financial and environmental drawbacks. Although some people will always want the status and other satisfactions of owning a car, what most people want is affordable mobility without having to purchase, tax, insure, park and fuel a four-wheeled millstone. In the well-planned cities of continental Europe, that kind of mobility is provided by efficient and affordable public transport. But in more benighted places (like most British towns and cities), autonomous vehicles are an obvious alternative.
For readers of the Daily Mail this will seem crazy. Fleets of self-driving cars? In Britain? Incredulity on this scale suggests that our media haven’t been paying attention. On Tuesday, for example, the US government issued new federal guidelines that are clearly designed to speed up the development of self-driving cars. The only stiff requirement is that the vehicles should be safe, otherwise the government will pull them off the road. But it’s up to the manufacturers themselves to decide how the requisite safety is to be achieved.
In the same week, Uber started offering rides in self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, a notoriously demanding urban environment. At the moment, there’s always a “driver” sitting in the front, but the obvious intention is to dispense with the human as soon as it’s deemed safe to do so.
The clear messages from these developments are, first, that this technology will become mainstream much faster than people expected, and second, that the US government wants it to happen as soon as possible. (Nearly 100 people die every day on US roads.) Transport planning is about to get really interesting again. And we might even be able to reclaim our streets from all those empty, idle parked cars.