May 9, 2016

Thoughts on Prop 1, and the future of transportation

Long, super wonky blog post coming. Be forewarned.

I. The Proposition

Uber and Lyft – ridesharing companies – and the city of Austin have been having fights for a long time.

Ridesharing companies, if you’re unaware, are app companies in which private users download the app, become “contractor” drivers for the app company, and the app then connects the contractor driver with people who need a ride.

The problem the city of Austin has is that ridesharing companies do their own background checks, using a social security number and other information. The city of Austin’s issue is that they have little insight into who, exactly, is driving its citizens around. Ridesharing is about getting into a stranger’s car – the city of Austin wanted more control over that.

In December of 2015, the Austin City Council passed a law requiring the city to do fingerprinting background checks. Uber and Lyft were incensed, because this incurs more fees on them and threatens their driver “pipeline,” in which drivers become contractors. Uber and Lyft then put together enough political support to hold a general election on Proposition 1. If passed, Prop 1 would have repealed the fingerprint requirement, along with other, much more reasonable regulations such as marking your car as an Uber or Lyft car, or not being allowed to block lanes, etc.

Those little details add up. Though this initially seems to be about fingerprint background checks and so on, a lot of this was about Uber and Lyft rejecting any interference from local government whatsoever.

Everyone assumed Prop 1 would sail through. Uber has been phenomenally successful at negotiating with local governments, even the Mayor of New York. If a politician stands in its way, then the next time an Uber user opens their app, the first thing they’ll see is a reminder to vote, and how to vote. To stand in the way of Uber is to stand in the way of the future.

But Austin disagreed. Austin voted down Prop 1 by a 10 digit margin. To make matters even more bonkers, Uber and Lyft spent an inconceivable about of money on the campaign – it was the most expensive campaign in Austin history. To quote the Austin-American Statesman:

It was spending on a scale that had never been seen in Austin politics, as Uber and Lyft singlehandedly funded the pro-Prop 1 campaign group, Ridesharing Works for Austin, to the tune of $8.6 million, campaign finance reports showed. That’s more than seven times the previous record of $1.2 million, which was set by Adler in his 2014 mayoral campaign.

“You can elect governors in other states for that much money,” Butts said. “We set an example for the rest of the nation: Stand up to these guys.”

Butt’s anti-Prop 1 campaign, which raised less than $200,000, was outspent nearly 50 to 1.

On average, Uber and Lyft spent $223.15 for each of the 38,539 votes they received.

The cost of a fingerprint-based background check is $40.

It’s that last bit that’s the kicker.

Uber and Lyft could have paid for the background checks several times over, if they wanted to. If they had the funds to mount this campaign, then they had the funds to work with local government regulations.

This was never about fingerprint background checks. It wasn’t about blocking lanes or drunk driving deaths or any of the noise that’s come out of this campaign. What this was about was which path has more legitimacy: public government or private companies.

II. Transportation: The Lifeblood of a City

I have unusually strong feelings about transportation and urban design. Part of this is because I think doing it right means making a city accessible and vibrant.

Transportation dictates the fabric and structure of a city in ways that few other things do. How people get from one place to another dictates what sort of home you live in, what sort of job you work, what sort of childcare you can get, and so on and so on.

Think of it like a living organism, wherein resources have to be transported from one facet to another. Some creatures have open circulatory systems, in which the organs are bathed in blood; others have closed circulatory systems, wherein the blood is contained at all times within vessels. Both systems do the same thing – they get nutrients from point A to point B  - but the way that they do it dictates a lot about how the creature itself works, and what it can do.

Our cities are built around cars. Cars are our default mode of travel – not trains, not bikes, not subways, not by foot – so every aspect of the city must be built to accommodate cars. This is for a lot of reasons. One is that our cities are newer, built in an age where it was easy to put water and energy wherever you wanted it, whereas older cities were built around water and other concise points, so a dense, centralized transportation system made sense.

We didn’t have those in the south and in the west. So we went with cars.

But cars have had a lot of side effects.

Freeways and highways are not dense. They require a lot of lanes and a lot of room. This means you have to get rid of a big chunk of your city to accommodate them. Check out these overhead photos of downtown cities from the 1950s to now to see how highways have excised huge pieces of urban fabric.

Cars also inevitably lead to traffic. And traffic leads to more roads, which leads to more traffic. In essence, roads do not cure traffic: they cause it. Umpteen studies have come to this conclusion.

Cars also make us fat and lazy. We don’t want to walk to the store or to school anymore, but walking is what we’ve evolved to do as a species. That’s bad.

Another problem is that cars allow you to self-sort. Don’t like your neighbors? You can live in one part of the city and drive in to work. As this excellent Collectors Weekly, piece explores, in the 1950s workplaces began to resemble utopic campuses, removed from urban realities, with severe consequences:

Mozingo’s concept of a separatist landscape builds off the ideas of geographer Allan Pred, who describes how our daily path through the built environment is a major influence on our culture and values. “If you live in a typical suburban place,” Mozingo explains, “you get in your car and drive to work by yourself, then stay in your office for the entire day seeing only other colleagues, and then drive back home alone. You’re basically only interested in improving highways and your office building.” Even as big tech touts its green credentials, the offices for Apple, Facebook, Google, and their ilk are inundated with parking, discreetly hidden below ground like their savvy mid-century forebears, encouraging employees to continue their solo commutes.

Today, this segregation isn’t only aided by architecture—it’s also a function of the tech-enabled lifestyle, with its endless array of on-demand services and delivery apps that limit interactions with people of differing views and backgrounds (exposure that would likely serve to increase tolerance). A protective bubble of affluence also reduces the need for civic engagement: If you always rely on ride-hailing apps, why would you care if the sidewalk gets cleaned or repaired?

This last piece that really speaks to how the car divorces the citizen from interest in their city. This disinterest often disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities, who inevitably take a large brunt of the pain from throwing up these huge highways. The US Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is very candid about the damage highways did to his community as a child. And here in Austin, it’s well-known that I-35 was built to cordon off the part of the city populated by black and Latino populations.

That’s one element that feels the most disturbing about highways. Once a highway is up, it becomes repellent to foot traffic – the natural mode of transportation for the human body. The idea of crossing that street is repellent, if not impossible. Growing up in Houston, it felt like we were marooned on a tiny postage stamp of property, with churning seas of cars around us. Leaving the island was hazardous to your health.

Cars are the privatization of transportation, delivering massive control of the city to the whims of the consumer. And this has hurt us in a lot of ways.

So this is one piece of the puzzle: the car culture, fueled by resource abundance as well as private companies arguing for infrastructure that rewarded their products, favored private forces over public ones, leading to a total divorce from the idea of an urban community. You stopped caring about your city – you only cared about the parts you drove through.

The suburbs have not been altogether good for us. Some economists even advocate that if we want economic growth, we should empty the suburbs altogether.

That’s one aspect. The other aspect is that cities are our future – both in how people want to live, and how we, as a species, will fight against climate change.

III. Cities Are the Future – If We Get to Have One, That Is

The more space you need to do something, the more energy it takes. That’s easy to understand. Cleaning a giant house is harder than cleaning a small one. Sending products through a giant factory is far more resource exhausting than sending them through a small one.

What’s very odd about our current cities, though, is that a lot of that space is empty. Suburbia has a hell of a lot of parking lots, highways, and lawns – space that goes unused for large parts of the day, but must be both traversed and maintained.

So urban density matters. It’s fairly good, then, that more and more people in the United States want to move to dense urban areas. This trend isn’t restricted to America. The World Health Organization says that urban growth is skyrocketing around the world.

How much can urban density help the climate? Here’s an idea: San Francisco just voted to require solar panels on every new roof – but the carbon those panels would offset is just a fraction compared to what would be saved if they changed their zoning to allow denser housing.

And mayors in the United States are the ones who are really leading the fight for climate change. The state and federal level is bogged down in denialism, but urban, educated areas know that climate change is real, and are preparing for it.

Cities are the real front where progress can be made. Cities don’t need federal or state approval to decarbonize. Hell, Miami’s mayor knows the city is doomed, even if the Florida governor and legislature refuses to admit it.

The thing to remember here, then, is that this requires civic engagement. It requires both citizens getting involved, and giving cities power.

You want more density, more walkability, more public transportation? That means more city authority and regulation.

You want to fight climate change, decarbonize, or prepare for the effects of global warming? That means more city authority and regulation.

What’s odd is that there is one part of the solution that both cities and the Silicon Valley ridesharing companies agree is coming. But to make it work, and to make it work right, means a lot of planning, and a lot of regulation. I’m referring, here, to fully automatic vehicles, or FAVs.

IV. No One in the Driver’s Seat

A lot of people disagree on when self-driving cars will hit the street. Some say five years, or ten years. Others, like Costa Samaras with RAND, say it will likely be 30 years for 1% of the vehicles on the road to be FAVs. Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car program, recently changed up Google’s PR gospel and said some cities will see FAVs in 5 years, and others in 30.

But everyone agrees that they are indeed coming. Lyft just partnered with GM to test a line of self-driving taxis with real passengers. It’s a huge opportunity.

Why is it a huge opportunity? Because cars are a shitty thing to own. Consider this data from Zack Kanter:

Industry experts think that consumers will be slow to purchase autonomous cars – while this may be true, it is a mistake to assume that this will impede the transition. Morgan Stanley’s research shows that cars are driven just 4% of the time,5 which is an astonishing waste considering that the average cost of car ownership is nearly $9,000 per year.6 Next to a house, an automobile is the second most expensive asset that most people will ever buy – it is no surprise that ride sharing services like Uber and car sharing services like Zipcar are quickly gaining popularity as an alternative to car ownership. It is now more economical to use a ride sharing service if you live in a city and drive less than 10,000 miles per year.7

Imagine doing anything else during your car ride rather than driving: playing with your kid, watching a movie, answering email, reading a book. People will want this.

It can also help us densify cities. Imagine all the parking spaces, all the lots, all the garages, all the extra lanes we have to allow each individual person to essentially pilot their own room around town. We could take those and devote them to any other purpose than car storage, and it would be better. Not to mention that, if we use electric FAVs rather than Internal Combustion Engines, it will hugely, hugely cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But this will have considerable fallout, and some of it could be quite bad. Alex Rubalcava lays out some key issues with self-driving cars here:

More importantly, the cost in attention associated with transportation will drop to nearly zero. The average American could shift some of the 5.5 hours of television watched per day into the car, and end up with vastly more personal time once freed from the need to pay attention to the road. This possibility has led many people to predict that AVs could enable further suburban sprawl as the costs of transportation fall. A person who moves to a more distant exurb but commutes via a PSAV will pay less money for transportation, have more time for entertainment, and will also pay lower, exurban prices for their housing. It will be an irresistible combination, and it will be just one of many ways that VMT (vehicle miles traveled) will ratchet upwards once each marginal mile loses its cost in dollars and attention.

In other words, electric FAVs will make driving so inexpensive and easy to tolerate that people will drive more. That means more sprawl, more congestion – especially if people start using FAVs not to carry people, but items. Imagine ordering anything in the world, and a little robot drives it to your door. Now imagine the roads filled with such robots.

How can we avoid this future? How can we make sure that the innovation of FAVs leads to the best results for everyone?

The answer is through rigorous urban policy making. And while people might be torn about how much input the government should have about fingerprint background checks, very few would say that the government should have no say in robots tooling around on our streets with us.

V. Proposition 1 is the Start of the Fight for the Future

So that brings us full circle. And Prop 1 is all about this inherent conflict between how private interests want to make profits in cities, and how local government wants to make cities safe and livable.

Uber and Lyft never really cared about a fingerprint check. They could have paid for it several times over, considering the money they spent on the campaign. And other ridesharing organizations have made headway while complying with local regulations. It’s not impossible.

What Uber and Lyft wanted to do, and have always done, is send a message to cities: “Do it our way, or get nothing.”

There are a lot of reasons for why they’d want to do this. On the one hand, they’re startups, and require massive growth every year to succeed. This means doing everything you can to remove obstacles.

On the other hand, Uber and Lyft succeed mostly because they tiptoe around some very expensive regulations. Uber isn’t a transportation company, it’s a technology company. Its drivers aren’t employees, they’re independent contractors. It’s no surprise that, after all this, employment law is now one of the hottest legal areas to get into.

So Uber and Lyft succeed because they dodge some rules. Policy has yet to catch up to them. So to make sure policy never does catch up to them, or change any of those rules, they have to become so popular that the city finds them indispensable. “Keep the laws the way they are, because your population can’t live without us,” in other words.

In other words, they wish to grow so fast that they can leverage their popularity to depower urban planning in favor of private interests. Which has very bad effects.

I actually like ridesharing. I think it’s a good way to reduce cars and traffic and GHGs. I also think ridesharing is a compromised answer to a problem America has refused to acknowledge for the past 60 years: the refusal to build any public transportation infrastructure. The desire for easy transportation is there in America, and ridesharing is meeting those needs, albeit in a very compromised way that causes legal and jurisdictional problems that public transportation would likely avoid.

Ridesharing is convenient. It is cost effective. But we should be slow to become dependent on things that are convenient and handwave all the side-effects that come with it. That sort of attitude is essentially what’s caused climate change: fossil fuels were so cheap and so easy we just shrugged at the issues and kept going along with it. Then the companies and producers of such fossil fuels became so powerful the issue became that much harder to confront.

We have to think about the ramifications. Especially with climate change and FAVs on the horizon. Some convenient choices have gotten us to this place, where our cities sprawl out, punish the poor, are designed to make us obese, and belch carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

The only way to make sure those choices don’t harm us anymore is with more civic engagement, and with the city and private interests finding some kind of middle ground. Market economics produce excellent, innovative results, results cities need. But they should not dictate how a city works, or what a city is. Its citizens should do that.

But I’m not encouraged. For all their talk about local government and federal tyranny, the State of Texas is more than willing to overrule its cities when they make their own decisions. Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown has already called for legislation on the issue. I fully expect to see what happened to Denton also happen to Austin, and soon.