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Ex-CDOT Chief Klein Discusses Proposed Ban on Self-Driving Cars in Chicago

A driverless car on a test course. Photo: Wikipedia

The 2016 National Shared Mobility Summit takes place in Chicago from October 17-19, bringing together leaders in the fields of bike-sharing, car-sharing, ride-sharing, microtransit and more, hosted by the Chicago-based Shared-Use Mobility Center. You can register for the event here and use the promo code STREETSBLOG to receive 10 percent off the cost of registration.

Three former Chicago Department of Transportation heavy-hitters will be convening for a panel called “Connecting the DOTs – City Commissioners on Shared Mobility. The panel will be moderated by ex-Chicago transportation chief Gabe Klein and will also includehis former CDOT deputies Leah Treat and Scott Kubly.

Klein is part of the new transportation consulting firm CityFi and serves on the board of several transportation-related organizations (including OpenPlans, the parent organization of Streetsblog). Treat and Kubly currently lead the Portland and Seattle DOTs, respectively. Earlier this decade, the three of them launched the Divvy bike-share system, as well as initiatives like the construction of 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, the Bloomingdale Trail, and the Chicago Riverwalk.

Their panel, which takes place from 12:45-2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 18, will look at how cities are responding to the challenges of aging infrastructure, changing regulatory demands, and emerging transportation developments to become “hubs of innovation, entrepreneurship, and growth.” They’ll discuss best practices as well as the path forward for shared mobility technologies.

I recently caught up with Klein by phone to get his take on a new proposal by Chicago aldermen to ban autonomous vehicles from the city, a stance some local commentators have blasted as reactionary.

JG: In response to Uber testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Chicago aldermen are saying they don’t want to allow self-driving cars in our city until it’s a proven technology. Aldermen Anthony Beale and Ed Burke are the sponsors of the proposed ordinance. Those guys have been anti-ride-share – they’ve been defenders of the taxi industry. So it appears that they don’t want more competition for taxi drivers. What do you think about the issue of cities preemptively banning self-driving cars?

GK: What people have to keep in mind is that our situation right now with people-driven cars is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately our frame of reference for most of us is, this is the way it’s been since we’ve been alive, that people have been driving cars around and running each other over, in huge numbers. Last year 1.25 million people died worldwide in car crashes – the number one killer of young people.

So, with all due respect to Alderman Beale and Alderman Burke, and I know they mean well, the idea that self-driving cars are going to be less safe is almost impossible. Human error causes 94 percent of car crashes, so the faster we can get people out from behind the wheel of [multi-ton] hunks of metal next to pedestrians and cyclists, the safer our cities will be, the more people will want to live in our cities, the safer and healthier our children will be, because they’ll start walking and biking to school again.

So I’m a huge fan of the technology. I’m very wary of how it’s utilized, because I don’t want to see it cause sprawl and I don’t want to see it hurt the quality of transit systems. On the other hand, I can’t imagine a worse situation than what we have now, because of the number of people driving and the number of deaths that we have, something like 55 million injuries [worldwide annually].

So I think this is more about the taxi lobby, and I think it’s shortsighted. Because the taxis are actually in a unique position with the future of point-to-point ground transportation likely becoming completely commoditized. The taxis – if they can hang on -- are one of the only government-sanctioned systems for that type of service. So you would actually think that they would want to be the first market with autonomous vehicles, not last.

Perhaps the industry itself misunderstands how this technology may play out and the distinct advantage that they have, or could have. But my guess is they’re such a fractured industry that they don’t think about these things as a collective.

JG: You mentioned the issue of driverless cars possibly contributing to sprawl. What can we do to make sure that driverless are a net positive for cities, that they lead to less car dependency, not more, and that they don’t encourage people to live farther away from work, and they don’t lead to a drop in transit service?

GK: I think urbanists and the people who care about the health of our cities have a very healthy skepticism about autonomous cars. But what I would encourage them to do is to separate the tool from how it’s used. We have cars that are driven by people now, poorly, and we’ll have some version of cars tomorrow that will hopefully not be driven by humans.

The technology itself is not the problem. The problem that we see with humans is that we get lazy. We say, hey, combustion engine was invented. That looks like it’s more convenient and flexible than the streetcar. Let’s kill the streetcar and make everything buses with rubber tires. We sell lots of cars and we’ll sell lots of tires.

So sometimes the shiny object, the new technology, causes really bad policy decisions to be made in favor of technology. And actually what I’ve been focusing on with my new firm CityFi is to get people to focus on the outcomes that they want for their cities. The outcomes that we want are happy citizens. One of my partners, Ashley Hand, just finished the transportation technology strategy for Los Angeles, and it’s really good. And one of the basic tenants that they focus on is “Transportation Happy” – how happy are you when you’re in your car stuck in traffic? How happy when you’re on your bike or you’re walking and you’re getting exercise and fresh air?

So we could look at the outcomes that we want in cities, and how the various technologies, like autonomous vehicles, fit into it. And I think that autonomous vehicles could be a huge boon to transit. They could be a huge boon to the safety of our citizens. They could help people who didn’t previously have mobility options to get mobility options at very low costs – it could be more equitable. It could more get people to jobs.

But it we don’t set the right policies in government – and we won’t everywhere, that’s a given – in places like Chicago and D.C., and Portland, yeah, you could encourage people to live further out and just use an autonomous car. Because there’s no vehicle miles traveled tax, there’s no taxation on an owned vehicle.

But if you look out the [National Association of City Transportation Officials] policy for autonomous vehicles that we put out a couple months ago, it calls for shared-use vehicles, not owned vehicle. It calls for a 25 mph maximum speed in an urban context, not a Tesla speed. And it calls for Level Four autonomy only, meaning no human involvement, no turning it on and off.

Klein shows off a solar-and-pedal-powered ELF trike by Organic Transit in 2014. Photo: John Greenfield

And I would add to that, just personally, not for NACTO, that I would like to see much smaller format, lighter vehicles. You took a picture of me a couple of years ago with my little Organic Transit ELF. I think we overbuild cars. I love what Elon Musk has done at Tesla and the adoption of electric vehicle technology that we’re seeing. But do we really need a 7,000-pound Model X to get around the city? We don’t. The ELF is like 160 pounds and my bike is 25 pounds.

Our vehicles are out of scale with our cities. I look at what Barcelona is proposing with their superblock strategy and it’s really great. It’s really interesting and provocative. And I think that through the right policies we can push people towards smaller vehicles, more energy-efficient vehicles, pedal-electric vehicles, and autonomy can play a roll in all of that.

I think we also have to take a look at the use case. If you need to go from one neighborhood to another, that’s a trip that you used to make on a streetcar. And now you might make it on bike-share. And perhaps the autonomous vehicle is for the trip that’s more than a neighborhood away. So we set policies and incentives and disincentives so that those vehicles are utilized for those kinds of trips.

And the idea that the aldermen have, that this is going to be competition for taxis, my response is, why aren’t the taxis on this? This is perfect for them. They could be outcompeting everybody, if they were the first to market it.

JG: How would taxi drivers play into it if the cars were autonomous.

GK: Well, there are a couple of scenarios. One is that they don’t play a role at all. But in the cities where they own their own taxis, where they have some sort of relationship with the taxi company, or they own the medallion – there’s a different situation is every city. But in those situations I think there’s an opportunity for more of a co-op model where each vehicle or blocks of vehicles are owned by individuals. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it shakes out.

There’s this thinking out there, oh, Uber’s just going to be running our ground transportation system. I don’t necessarily think that’s how it’s going to shake out. I see them rushing to market. And I like what they’re doing. I like that they’re testing on streets, I like that they’re showing people what they technology can do, they’re learning.

So I’m fan of what they’re doing. But I think it’s a long shot to say that one company is going to run autonomous vehicles. Lots of people will be running them. And taxis are set up in a perfect place to be that service. But I think it’s sad that they don’t see themselves that way.

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