Mark Davis: Cut the gasoline, then the asphalt and driver

While crossing the street on a recent visit to San Francisco, I looked up on one of that city’s steep iconic steep hills and saw a car heading straight for me with nobody at the wheel. I leaped back toward the curb, then started on across the street as the driverless car glided to a smooth stop and waited for me to use the crosswalk.

Driverless electric cars are currently limited to a few American cities.

They are being promoted by companies eager to replace the expensive drivers required for the cab and the ride-share markets. They also have the potential to dramatically reduce vehicle accidents by replacing the primary cause of most accidents–the driver.

Driverless cars use sensors and software to navigate city streets. They never look down to read a text, consume intoxicants, worry about what happened last night or get distracted by a blinking advertising sign.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports the following annual statistics for 2022:

- 5.9 million collisions

- 42,514 deaths

- 2.4 million injuries

- $465 billion in total cost

If a terrorist group unleashed this sort of death and destruction on America, the public and its political representatives would be howling for action.

Beyond this human and economic toll lies the long-term environmental cost. We now live in the Anthropocene Epoch, where human activities drive untold numbers of flora and fauna to extinction.

Transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Electric vehicles would help reduce that significantly. A driverless ride-share fleet of them would help even more by reducing the land committed to storing cars.

Yes, cars require parking places — at home, at work, at play and at shopping sites. The average car covers about 85 square feet, but parking spaces are sized to allow safe and easy access to even the largest of them.

Under the McMinnville parking ordinance, typical parking spaces run 162 square feet. But the drive aisles required to get in and out of the parking lot eat up significant additional land. Looking around McMinnville, you see parking lots typically running double the size of the businesses they serve.

When laying out a subdivision, the city expects 25% of the land to be used for right-of-way, largely devoted to roads. Driveways and garages are reserved for cars as well, so maybe a third of the land in a new subdivision ends up dedicated to vehicles.

Commercial development in the city has a similar need for roads and parking lots. If you consider all this land, plus that dedicated to sales lots, gas stations, repair shops, car washes and so forth, more than half of our commercial land is dedicated to motor vehicles.

It’s enough to make you think space for people is merely incidental to creating more space for cars. With more land dedicated to cars than housing, is it any wonder that our unhoused population often chooses to live in vehicles?

If you’re thinking our society simply cannot function without the use of personal vehicles, you are absolutely correct. But remember, this system did not develop overnight.

It was driven, over time, by billions of dollars in tax subsidies to the corporate interests promoting private transportation. And those subsidies continue to this day.

It’s possible to meet our transportation needs compactly and efficiently, but that will take time and political will. The first step is to admit the current system is too costly in terms of both lives and dollars — that, simply put, it’s a dead-end road.

We may not see a fleet of driverless electric vehicles providing transportation in McMinnville any time soon, but we should be working to see that day coming eventually. And the next time I visit family in San Francisco, I intend to try getting around in one of those driverless electric cars.


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