If Driving Can’t Be Fun…

self-driver

Hi there! – the Google self-driving car

In a world of driverless cars, the driving man is king. Or so I thought last weekend at a meetup where one laptop-cradling attendee asked the assembly: would you give up your right to drive for the convenience of a self-driving fleet? About two-thirds of the group raised their hands.

A strict libertarian I am not, but we should be wary when someone proposes the removal of rights. I didn’t raise my hand, but not out of ideological certitude. While the man’s question is a potent one, it seems too complex and too contingent for a straw poll to do it justice. So here’s my attempt.

It doesn’t take a professional planner to recognize that modern cities consider the right to drive a given. Driving is as necessary as eating for most of us. And despite our daily struggles with traffic, the automobile lives very close to the beating heart of American culture. The 2008 automotive industry bailouts got so much attention partly because we picture American industry’s golden age as rows of men on the Detroit assembly line, churning out cars. Our concept of leisure, even for supposedly driving-averse Millennials, operates around the assumption that you need a car to get anywhere worth going.

Perhaps an automotive century molded our sense of urban life in its image just as concretely as it transformed our physical infrastructure. We may be stuck with the private car. Transit, bikes, and walkable neighborhoods are all well and good, but what we really need are cars, driverless and battery-powered and app-summoned. Give up your right to drive, abandon these silly buses and trains, and declare your allegiance to Silicon Valley’s new world-changing venture.

It’s easy to get cynical. Silicon Valley’s insistence on disruption hasn’t delivered the revolutionary improvements in lifestyle it promised. Some say we’re more beholden to our machines than ever before, adapting our minds and bodies to their rhythms while maintaining the precarious illusion of control. Wouldn’t a citywide network of self-driving cars be an extension of that trend? Wouldn’t it become the civic answer to a Disneyland ride, a place to cede our right to travel, for a fee, to those who have our happiness at heart?

The Game of Driving

Beyond the cynicism, the doubt, the useful politics around any discussion of “rights,” is the brutal reality of driving as it exists now. And I’m not referring to the tens of thousands of Americans who lose their lives every year to variations on driver error. I am not talking about grinding hours on clogged, crumbling highways, bumper-to-bumper with the rest of the restless city. I’m not even talking about the land use disaster that is parking, the sky-high garage rates in city centers and the vast deserts of empty asphalt girdling suburban malls.

I’m referring to the game of driving, the unique psychological and political environment we enter when we pull away from garage or driveway and into that fraught arena, the street. We take for granted, I think, the degree to which this game shapes our politics and personalities. Though we are awash with self-help and self-realization guides of every kind, they offer no comment on the specific and often intense exercise that occupies hours of our time, every single day.

And yet there are engineers and programmers at Google, even now, who take this game of driving very seriously. They’re thinking about it every day. As I write this, intricate protocols are being written to guide self-driving prototypes safely down the streets of Mountain View. They’re even tackling ethical challenges, like whether an autonomous car can or should choose between the lives of its occupants and the lives of pedestrians on the road. Those programmers know that driving fits one definition of a game: a set of activities bounded by concrete rules. And that game is enforced, traffic cops aside, by the collective agreement of all parties involved to follow those rules.

Imagine you’re alone in your car and you approach a red light. Even though you can see clearly that no drivers are speeding down the perpendicular road, you stop at the light and wait. Imagine you’re on a two-lane street in front of a pack of cars. You want to drive at 30 mph, but the strangers behind you crowd close and you can tell they’re in a hurry. You speed up to 45 mph. Imagine you’re on a boulevard with three lanes traveling in your direction. You know there aren’t cars to your right or left, but you stick to your lane anyway, or feel a little jolt of embarrassment when you realize you’re drifting.

These are all examples of gameplay in an unpredictable arena where the stakes are at once commonplace (getting to the grocery store before it closes) and extreme (avoiding death-by-collision at that blind turn on the way there). That combination of extremes always struck me as psychologically significant.

A Political Exercise

And it’s all very political. Consider the enforcement of rules by horn and by rule-bending squad car. The masculine posturing and the constant preemptive stereotyping by vehicle and driver identity. The protocol of turn signals. The ways we improvise when a cyclist, a construction zone, or a fallen tree modifies the game-board. And then there’s road rage. That flash of supreme fury when one of these anonymous nobodies breaks the rules and puts us in a disadvantageous position.

The game of driving can be brutal in the city. We are all strangers when we walk down the sidewalk, but at least we are human strangers, bound to consider the people we encounter as something like our conscious selves. With cars it isn’t so easy. We know intellectually that the driver is a person, but what we see first is the car’s inhuman form. Moreover, we encounter that form in a competitive and rule-stricken environment where fear, anger, and shame are never too far away.

That isn’t how it was supposed to be. In a blander, less-crowded America, the automobile was a multiplication of the horse, a tool for liberation and self-discovery. In many parts of the country, out away from the cities, it can still be that way. And city driving isn’t always a challenge. The danger and the rules remain during pleasurable trips, but they soften. Far from obstacles or assholes, fellow drivers become incidental peers in a world where we’re all playing the same game. In those cases, driver control can be a positive social exercise – as well as a lot of fun.

A Google transportation network sounds like the final triumph of Silicon Valley boosterism, but we need to resist the urge to kill the self-driving car. Liberated from the need to play this high-stakes, low-payout game of driving, we can regain some of the psychological and political energy it currently drains from us. We can keep the right to drive, but only in places where we derive some pleasure from it, where road interactions don’t need to rely on an attitude of defensiveness. Maybe the self-driving car can help us make space for the games we actually enjoy.

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann

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Why America Needs Cool Trains Again

cool high-speed rail

“Daddy, when I grow up I want to build them!”

The predictable response of certain politicians to Amtrak’s recent derailment: strip the program of funds yet again. This isn’t the way. America needs cool trains again.

We shouldn’t build high-speed rail just because it’s efficient, though that is a side benefit. We should spend billions on high-speed rail because it radically changes the cultural narrative about public transportation.

Once upon a time (c. 1850-1960), innovations in train and airplane technology opened the world to speedy and convenient travel. Public and private operators all worked hard to build a sense of American progress and glamour into shared forms of transport. That changed when we started taking these marvels for granted. Wide-eyed youngsters excluded, train and plane travel – especially for business – is now a hassle to be endured, an uncomfortable exposure to hours of boredom in public.

Private automobiles occupy a very different headspace than almost every other mode. It’s all in the sense of mastery and control bought by that word: private. And unless you own a private jet, you share your plane or train trip with strangers. The same goes for subways, light rail, streetcars, and buses.

During public journeys, many of us adopt a mood ranging from the fairly annoyed to the powerfully pissed-off. Paying for business class can improve the situation somewhat, but does little to dispel the troubles associated with airport security and finding the hotel. Control of a private car deceives the human brain into a sense of comfort. You have the option to speed past in a fit of pedal-pushing angst.

That’s not to say there is anything inferior or mechanically unworthy about the private automobile. But the car’s ubiquity masks its miraculous nature. Before the dawn of memory, children are ferried about in cars, and never do they inspire the visceral wonder of trains and airplanes. Kids in cars are restless and peevish like the adults driving them. But I’ve witnessed firsthand the sheer joy of children as the ground beneath them pulls away from a station and into the wide world.

Simply put, America needs to reinvest in the mode that built this nation. We already depend on freight rail for our many consumable goods, but neglecting passenger trains is a mistake. Here’s why: high-speed passenger rail brings public transportation back to the cutting edge.

Landing probes on Mars and the Moon is cool and all, but manned landings are what society remembers and respects.

Cool trains somewhere make trains cooler everywhere. When a bullet train passes by at 250 mph, subway or light rail sounds more attractive by association.

Getting America’s passenger rail system up to speed would require a certain degree of federal involvement. But that doesn’t mean we need to stick to the Amtrak model.

Let’s take a moment to remember that federal defense and R+D contracts were and are HUGE drivers of innovation in the aerospace field. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it is fairly clear that commercial air travel – and air technology throughout the world – is only so efficient because of ongoing big government deals with major manufacturers. Unlike software innovators, modern aerospace required the initial capital and research outlays only Cold War-fueled feds could provide.

airport terminal

Brought to you with the help of Uncle Sam.

Government is already essential to every transport mode we use – except perhaps our feet. But that doesn’t mean, as in Amtrak’s case, government has to be the only player. In most successful endeavors it never is. Our auto-centric society requires private cars and public roads. The build-up to modern aerospace required intense public-private cooperation.

It may be that one day a network of self-driving shared electric cars will ferry us around the city. But until then, we need to boost the public transit systems we have, both from a practical standpoint and (more importantly) a cultural one. Modern urban and environmental conditions demand it. And high-speed rail is the glamorous keystone to that project.

Finally, if the Japanese want to partner with us to build high-speed rail in America, why not? We sure don’t seem to mind buying their cars and trucks.

Photo attributions: Jun Seita; Robert Couse-Baker