GUEST OPINION: Impending ‘Car’tastrophe

By on February 9, 2016

Are we steering ahead to a future where no one is behind the wheel?

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – I received some interesting feedback from my Planet JH columns. Two responses in particular got me thinking about the subject of this week’s piece.

The first was an online comment posted by Judd Grossman on my public transportation column featured in December. Grossman pointed out the effects of the imminent arrival of self-driving cars. The second was an email from Pathways coordinator Brian Schilling detailing the amount of parking in downtown Jackson. Coincidentally, this happened shortly after I was walking around town looking for potential affordable housing sites. During my jaunt I noticed just how much land is dedicated for parking vehicles.

Let’s talk self-driving cars. I was skeptical at first, but Judd’s right—they’re coming. The technology is here; the implementation is mostly a matter of infrastructure build-out and data acquisition. Google has a fleet of self-driving cars that has logged more than 2 million miles of driving with a total of 16 accidents, all caused by other human-driven vehicles.

As a community, we should start thinking about what this means for us. After reading a lot of the literature, my opinion is that the personally owned, human-driven car is in the same position the horse and buggy was in at the beginning of the 20th century—its days are numbered.

Cars today are an extremely inefficient use of resources. Most of the time they sit idle, which means they must be stored somewhere. In the not-so-distant future, it’s likely that we’ll be moving to an Uber-like system of autonomous cars that will never be more than 30 seconds away. That scenario will massively cut transportation costs and will require very little parking… and no gas. Vehicles can be parked outside of town. They will self-charge.

A 2015 paper by the University of Texas predicts that one self-driving car can replace as many as 12 human-driven ones. This might seem futuristic, but virtually every major car manufacturer is working on some version of the technology with swift success. The iPhone seemed awfully futuristic in 2000, too. Ten years later it was taken for granted.

The implications of this are huge. And this brings me to Brian Schilling and a map he’s constructed showing land dedicated to parking in the downtown area (included in this column). The purple areas include all on-street parking, as well as town-owned lots like the Home Ranch and the parking garage. The yellow is everything else. The map does not include most underground or covered parking, or individual driveways.

My guess is that about half of the land in Jackson’s downtown core is dedicated to storing vehicles that are, by definition, not being used. Think about that for a moment. In a town (and county) with a severe land shortage, this is a game-changer. Imagine being able to reclaim nearly half of that land. Think of what the community might do with land that’s currently being used to park cars at Smith’s, Albertson’s, Lucky’s, Kmart, Snow King, schools, and the hospital, just to name a few. Think of the better uses we could make of the parking garage and the Home Ranch, and all the street parking area we currently maintain at taxpayer expense.

This kind of massive change will certainly scare some people, and for good reason. Not all of its repercussions will be good. We’ll see big economic changes; the transportation industry is, after all, huge. Car dealers, gas stations, auto-repair shops, taxi drivers and the like will deem this an existential threat, as will their employees. But this is not the kind of change we can stop; the world is too interconnected to be able hold out on a local level, and there is nothing about the history of technological advance that suggests there is any way to prevent autonomous cars from being adopted. We can, however, plan for it so that we can mitigate the downside and take advantage of the upside. There will be plenty of opportunity to do that, locally.

If (or when) we ease or eliminate our parking requirements, will we require property owners to share that windfall with a community that desperately needs it? Past town councils have handed out those kinds of gifts to developers without asking for anything in return. Will we help retrain and support the large numbers of long-term residents that will lose their jobs in the upheaval? Will we ensure that transportation is available and affordable to all? How will we prioritize the use of publicly owned land that will be made available? How will this affect future plans for public transportation? Don’t doubt that the finance/capitalist crowd (nationally and locally) is planning for this possibility.

In times of sudden change and chaos, those who are prepared and have a plan will be able to take advantage of the situation; those who are not will be taken advantage of. Let’s make sure our community, through its government, isn’t caught unprepared.

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