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Scrap subways to make way for driverless cars?

City planners face pressure from robo-car advocates, but they risk mortgaging the present for a future fantasy

As New York's subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways. However, cities that abandon transit will come to regret it, advocates warn.

New York

AUTONOMOUS vehicles that will outperform buses, cost less than Uber and travel faster than cars stuck in traffic today are two years away. Or 10. Or 30.

But visions of the future they'll bring have already crept into City Council meetings, political campaigns, state legislation and decisions about what cities should build today. That unnerves some transportation planners and transit advocates, who fear unrealistic hopes for driverless cars - and how soon they'll get here - could lead cities to mortgage the present for something better they haven't seen.

"They have imbued autonomous vehicles with the possibility to solve every problem that was ever created in transportation since the beginning of time," said Beth Osborne, a senior policy adviser with the advocacy group Transportation for America. "That might be a tad bit unrealistic."

In Indianapolis, Detroit and Nashville, Tennessee, opponents of major transit investments have argued that buses and trains will soon seem antiquated. In Silicon Valley, politicians have suggested something better and cheaper is on the way. As New York's subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways.

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Autonomous cars have entered policy debates - if not car lots - with remarkable speed. And everyone agrees that making the wrong bets now would be costly.

Cities that abandon transit will come to regret it, advocates warn. Driverless car boosters counter that officials wedded to "19th-century technology" will block innovation and waste billions.

"We are definitely going to have pushback," said Brad Templeton, a longtime Silicon Valley software architect who preaches the potential of "robocars". (He believes the subway paved over in concrete for autonomous vehicles could transport more passengers than rail can).

"I regularly run into people who even when they see the efficiency numbers, just believe there is something pure and good about riding together, that it must be the right answer."

His advice to cities: "Infrastructure plans for 2030 are sure to be obsolete." If you believe that autonomous cars will compete with transit rather than complement it - or that autonomous ride-hailing will give cities that never built transit something like it - there is appeal in holding out now.

"Don't build a light rail system now. Please, please, please, please don't," said Frank Chen, a partner with the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. "We don't understand the economics of self-driving cars because we haven't experienced them yet. Let's see how it plays out."

Theoretically, when companies such as Uber and Lyft no longer have to pay drivers, rides could be as cheap as bus fares. And when autonomous vehicles platoon, they could squeeze more capacity and speed out of roadways, eroding some of the timesaving advantages of railways.

Technologists also draw an analogy to the Internet, infrastructure that was conceived to be simple and uniform, compatible with any application. The intelligence lay in what was built on the Internet, not the Internet itself. For cities, Mr Templeton suggests this means "smart cars and stupid roads". Just lay concrete and let innovators design what rides on top of it. By definition, he said, rail precludes all possibilities other than the train.

Inherent in this idea is the fear that cities will lock in the wrong future, or that they'll prevent better ideas from arriving. They'll bet, for example, on docked bike-sharing systems, and then be caught off-guard when dockless scooters arrive.

"It's very easy to get caught up in these sensationalised visions," said Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. "Some of these visions may eventually come to fruition. But we are not talking about them happening in the next five years even, some of them in the next 10 years."

Many potential benefits of driverless cars won't kick in until there is mass adoption. Even in that distant future, Ms Quigley said, there simply won't be enough space in the busiest corridors for everyone to ride in an autonomous vehicle.

Highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. Autonomous vehicles might quadruple that. The best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour.

They move the most people, using the least space. No technology can overcome that geometry, said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transportation consultant.

By that logic, cities should invest even more in high-capacity rail and dedicated bus lanes in key corridors. Autonomous vehicles might handle other kinds of trips - rides from the train station home, or through suburban neighbourhoods, or across the parts of Las Vegas without rail.

The efficiency that autonomous vehicles promise is more likely if people share them - and don't use them for every trip.

Cities fixated on that future, however, could be making another risky bet.

New forms of transportation are heavily subsidised by venture capital today, and so cities that expect private services to replace public transit are counting on those subsidies, too. They're betting that driverless cars will get here, changing the economics of transportation, before the venture capitalists lose patience. NYTIMES

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