The New York Times Drops the Ball on Automated Vehicles

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At times the popular media coverage of transportation makes me cringe. Many news outlets lack a dedicated transportation reporter, and the person whose job it is to cover the story often has little background and even less interest in transportation policy. Automated vehicles, in particular, seem to bring out some of the oddest, most uneducated assertions of all areas in transportation.
Exhibit A is Emily Badger’s New York Times piece, “Pave Over the Subway? Cities Face Tough Bets on Driverless Cars” (July 20, 2018). The article confuses facts and makes bizarre assumptions but its biggest weakness is leading those with limited knowledge to think her piece represents mainstream AV thinking. Princeton AV expert Alain Kornhauser described the piece as “not even … half-baked.”
Several times Badger takes the viewpoint of a small minority and presents it as mainstream. Beth Osborne of Transportation for America argues that city council members, state legislation, and decision-making have been unduly influenced by people who “have imbued autonomous vehicles with the possibility to solve every problem that was ever created in transportation since the beginning of time.”
AVs by themselves don’t solve problems; good policy solves problems. And if most people thought that AVs by themselves could fix all of our transportation issues, that would be a problem. But most people don’t. In fact, polls show that more Americans fear AVs than welcome them. Sixty-four percent of millennials don’t think automated vehicles are safe. Some futurists may have an unrealistic view of AVs, but the public as a whole does not.
Badger repeats this problem with transit—twice. First, she uses the opinion of one person to argue that cities will have to pave over obsolete heavy-rail lines such as the New York Subway. That person, Brad Templeton, is a pioneer AV thinker who comes up with many creative ideas, but he is an expert in technology and software, not mass transit. Ten out of 10 transit experts will tell you the New York City subway will never be paved over. Heavy rail, where it works, transports huge numbers of people. In very dense central cities rail simply cannot be replaced with bus, and I say this as a member of a Transportation Research Board bus transit committee.
Badger then uses Templeton’s idea to suggest that opponents of light rail projects in Detroit, Indianapolis, and Nashville are falling for the “AV will fix everything” argument. Detroit, Indianapolis, and Nashville are nothing like New York City. New York has the super-high-density to make heavy rail work, a large number of jobs and residents near the central business district, and geographic boundaries (rivers) that make car travel challenging. The other cities have very low densities, very few jobs or residents in the central business districts, and no geographic boundaries. As a result, the three struggle to make even quality bus service work. In fact, the transit experts in those three metro areas did not recommend light rail; they recommended bus. Yet, Nashville’s political leadership chose to ignore the recommendation and place a light rail measure on the ballot that polling indicated would fail—as it did.
The lack of understanding that not every U.S. city has the spatial structure of New York or Washington, DC, is pervasive throughout the article. For example, Las Vegas is lauded for planning a light rail line, because there will not be space in downtown for everybody to drive their own AV. Yet no one is suggesting most folks will drive their own AVs. Early predictions are for a large increase in ride-sharing, as automation significantly reduces its cost. But even if many people buy their own AVs, Las Vegas could build a BRT line for less than one-third the cost of a rail line. Las Vegas already has a successful BRT line starting in downtown and running along the Vegas strip. Similar to Nashville, Las Vegas does not have the density to support light rail.
Badger makes one good point about the inflexibility and lack of creativity of many transit agencies. Twenty years ago, city manager Frank Martz of the Orlando suburb Altamonte Springs suggested using computers or kiosks to let people order smaller vehicles with optimized routes. But the leadership of the local transit agency, Lynx, was focused on buses, unions and drivers. The agency simply could not conceptualize on-demand transit. Finally, 20 years later, the city completed a two-year pilot program where it offered discounts on Uber rides. If transit agencies lack creativity and have made mistakes in the past, doesn’t it make sense to consider the uncertainties of automated vehicles when deciding on a transit technology?
This isn’t the first time The New York Times has published a poor transportation article. Earlier this year the newspaper argued that the Nashville rail plan (that the city’s own transit experts argued was bad policy) lost at the polls not because it was bad policy but because Americans for Prosperity bankrolled a campaign of transit-haters. The newspaper mentioned Randal O’Toole’s Nashville speech that compared rail transit to a diamond-encrusted watch. But it did not mention my Nashville presentation on why a bus-based system was a better alternative or other presentations from transit experts on automated vehicles and personal mobility.
The Times should re-assess its goals in transportation policy. If its goal is to run balanced, intelligent articles that are well-respected by professionals, it should follow the lead of the Washington Post (and many other newspapers) and hire one or more dedicated transportation reporters to write balanced feature articles on transportation policy. If the newspaper’s goal is to produce flashy headlines with little substantive news, it should stay on its current track (irony intended). But the New York Times’ leadership should not be surprised when transportation professionals continue to dismiss its work as drivel.
(This article first ran in the August issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
Baruch Feigenbaum
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