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Flying taxis or futuristic tunnels won’t save us from the misery of traffic

‘These ideas are not necessarily for the public good’

Illustrations by James Bareham

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When you’re stuck in a traffic jam — and let’s face it, most of us are these days — do you dream of escaping by flying through the clouds or tunneling below the street? Soon enough, both options may become possible, thanks to a couple of high-concept ideas floating around Silicon Valley. But those who think they can transcend traffic in a flying taxi or through a futuristic, underground tunnel may be depressed to learn that neither plan is likely to do much to loosen the vise-like grip of traffic congestion on our nation’s roadways. In fact, they may actually make things worse.

First, some facts: the US is the most congested developed country in the world, with 11 cities in the top 25 for most gridlocked. Drivers in the US spend an average of 42 hours a year in traffic during peak times, according to a recent analysis. And congestion costs more than just your time — it also hits you right in the wallet. The direct and indirect costs of gridlock in 2016 was $300 billion, or an average of $1,400 per driver.

traffic is literally killing us — our bodies and our souls

Traffic is also extremely deadly. As many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year, according to the National Safety Council. That marks a 6 percent increase over 2015, and a 14 percent increase over 2014 — the most dramatic two-year escalation in 53 years.

So who can blame Silicon Valley for thinking this is a problem ripe for disruption. Tech evangelists preach the idea of saving the world. And if traffic is literally killing us — our bodies and our souls — why shouldn’t we look to these heroic engineers and coders for our salvation?

Probably because its mostly bullshit. Sure, the technology exists. We’ve been digging tunnels since the late 19th century to bypass our choked surface streets. And the idea of vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which is what has Uber so jazzed these days, is still in its infancy, but experts agree could be due for a breakthrough. These are not new ideas. But when you start to look below the surface, it becomes clear that they’re not designed to benefit most of us who experience the daily torture of traffic. Just the people who can afford it.

“these ideas are not necessarily for the public good.”

“I have no doubt the technology will be there,” said “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, a former New York City traffic commissioner and engineering consultant. “But again I come back to the very basic point, these ideas are not necessarily for the public good. It’s going to be good for a certain class of people, the ones that are in their limousines stuck in traffic behind a thousand Ubers and Lyfts.”

By his own account, Elon Musk comes up with his best ideas while stuck in Los Angeles’ infamous traffic jams. In 2012, he hatched the idea for the hyperloop — levitating capsules traveling at near supersonic speeds through airless tubes — when he was trapped in a particularly frustrating choke point. And more recently, another LA snarl-up (the city has a lot of them) caused him to cook up his latest crackpot scheme: a futuristic network of superhighways built underneath the nation’s congested urban centers.

The Boring Company, as he calls it, aims to revolutionize the laborious, expensive act of digging tunnels. And most importantly, Musk says he’s working on tunnel-boring machines than can simultaneously dig up and reinforce tunnels, which could go a long way toward solving a big engineering challenge.

Video: The Boring Company

A few days before Musk sent his army of fanboys into a tizzy with a CGI video of Teslas careening on high-speed electric sleds through underground tunnels, Uber was tickling our utopian fancies with a different vision. At a conference in Dallas in late April, the embattled ride-sharing company unveiled its plan to launch an “on-demand aviation” service using small, electric-powered aircraft that can take off and land vertically. Two cities — Dallas-Forth Worth and Dubai — would play host to the first-of-its-kind service. And a handful of aircraft manufacturers and real estate developers would serve as Uber’s advance team in its early explorations of a flying taxi service. Yep, Uber is working on “flying cars” (and I use that term with extreme skepticism).

Everyone not completely distracted by the current horror show in our nation’s capital probably caught both of these stories out of the corner of their eye and thought “Cool.” But what they’re missing is the subtext: our streets are in such poor shape the only innovations worth pursuing are ones that completely abandon the surface. We must become skylarks, or mole people, if we’re to get around in a stress-free manner. Ignoring the obviously enormous costs associated with both flying taxis and high-speed tunnels for a moment, there’s a strain of Silicon Valley thinking that assumes our most intractable problems can be solved by something glossy, mobile, and wrapped in carbon fiber. And that’s stupid.

“The Silicon Valley approach to congestion seems to suffer from two of its chronic ills.”

“The Silicon Valley approach to congestion seems to suffer from two of its chronic ills,” said Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. “The 'there's an app for that' thinking that often leads to solutions to non-existent problems — Segway was an early example of this — and the question of scaling. Is there anyone, apart from time-pressed one percenters, looking for a helicopter to whisk them, Sao Paolo style, across the dystopian transportation network below?” 

At Uber’s flying taxi conference in Dallas, I posed this exact question to Mark Moore, a former NASA engineer who now serves as Uber’s guru for vertical take-off and landing aircraft. Who is this for exactly? What problem does this proposal even solve?

“Gridlock!” he exclaimed. “Come on, you’ve experienced it. The highways are stuck. And project that out, 10 to 20 years.” He rattled off a lot of insidery lingo about “minimum infrastructure” and the ability to “co-locate” launchpads where people work and live, before landing on a crucial point.

“We can handle the short distance trips really well with Uber,” Moore said. “When we have to travel far, we’re stuck on the ground like everyone else. So this new transportation system provides a way to rise above pathway dependent systems. It just has different vertiport nodes, with no infrastructure required between those nodes. And that’s a fundamental change in the architecture to be able to permit this very dynamic, very rapid type of travel that doesn’t take 20 years to put in place, like highways or light rail, or billions in bonds. By going up in the air, we can be faster than any other mode of transportation.”

“By going up in the air, we can be faster than any other mode of transportation.”

It’s certainly true, surface-level transportation is a heavy lift, both in terms of construction and funding. But it is also true that cheaper, lightweight ideas like bike-share programs can go a long way toward improving the quality of life in our cities. But bikes aren’t as cool as flying taxis. Maybe Larry Page, the Google founder who is also working on a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, can bridge that gap: his Kitty Hawk project resembles a hoverbike more than a helicopter.

Vanderbilt, who also wrote the more recent book You May Also Like: Taste in an Era of Endless Choice, noted that in just about any test that's ever been run in New York City, the bicycle outperforms all other modes of transportation at peak periods — “yet we continue to not take it seriously as a transportation option by giving it substandard infrastructure.”

Because isn’t there the hint of the suggestion in both Musk and Uber’s proposals that other, proven modes of transportation — bikes, buses, trains, and subways — aren’t worth improving? Or that our cities aren’t worth redesigning to take away space from cars? If anything, they represent a direct rejection of the kind of egalitarianism inherent in mass-transit systems, in favor of individual happiness and individual freedom of movement.

“individual optimality does not always equal system optimality.”

“One lesson traffic engineers stress all the time is individual optimality does not always equal system optimality,” Vanderbilt said, “and there's a certain aspect of Silicon Valley culture that is certainly about optimizing one's own individual life — paying someone to wait in line for your burrito for you — without considering larger system effects (e.g., delivery app drivers parking by the fire hydrant to run in and grab those burritos).”   

Some tech firms have attempted to build a better transit service. Boston-based Bridj thought it could Uber-ize bus service by building a cool app and buying a fleet of commuter vans. The company was operating its on-demand bus service in Washington, DC, Austin, Kansas City, and Boston when, earlier this month, it announced it would be shutting down. A major investment deal with an unnamed car company had collapsed, and the startup couldn’t see a path forward. And as reported by CityLab, many of the users happened to be young and wealthy, raising the question whether Bridj was serving the low-income populations it claimed it wanted to help.

It’s easy to get distracted by the flops, like Bridj, or the shiny objects, like flying Ubers, tunnels, self-driving cars, and hyperloops. The federal government has almost completely abandoned the idea that public transportation is worth subsidizing, preferring to pour money into car-friendly projects like wider highways and toll roads. And our cities get caught up in the hype, hitching their wagon to unproven concepts in the slim hope that their sleek-suited pitchmen can rescue them from the ills of choked highways and snarled city streets.

Image: Uber

Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, noted that relatively small-bore interventions to improve the way we get around get lost when shiny proposals for flying cars or the hyperloop or the underground high-speed tunnels proliferate.

“But I do think they’re still the same side of the coin,” Puentes said. “Yes, projects like hyperloop are fanciful at this stage and it does get frustrating to focus on those kinds of investments when there is such a dire need to get these investments up to state of good repair. But to the extent that these kinds of creative exercises help promote innovation in the transportation sector, I’m all for it. The challenge is to not get distracted.”