Self-driving cars are the future

Technologists are working on infusing the objects of public space with data and artificial intelligence.  The futures they are proposing to enable sometimes look remarkably like the futures of the past.   People will be whisked around in self-driving cars which park themselves in parking lots, and make themselves available upon request.  People will still live in residential neighborhoods, and will be taken in these self-driving cars to office parks and shopping centers.  Mom will no longer need to chauffeur the kids to school and soccer practice, the self-driving robot car will transport the kids safely and pick them up when their scheduled activities are done.

Futurists promoting self-driving cars see the technology as a way to preserve the car-dominant paradigm, while overcoming limitations of traffic and parking.

I wonder how much Mountain View’s choice to prevent housing from being built in North Bayshore, preserving Google’s headquarters as an old-school standalone office park will continue to shape the vision of the self-driving car as tool of classic low-density suburban sprawl.

Alternatively, plenty of Google’s engineers are taking the bus down from the city these days – and maybe soon they’ll be in tall buildings in Mission Bay.   Will those engineers see self-driving cars not as the evolution of the suburb-mobile, but the evolution of the taxi and the zipcar.  In an urban context, where the necessities of life are within walking distance, an automobile isn’t a necessity of daily life. Instead, it is a an occasional convenience; a ride back from the bar, a trip out to the mountains.

This blog comment makes the case that mathematically self-driving cars still can’t solve traffic congestion when human social patterns create peak travel times.  In that case, and in the world of gradually re-urbanizing suburbia, the self-driving car will be a more efficient first-and-last mile connection to transit services.

It is not at all clear how self-driving cars will interact with pedestrians and cyclists, children and pets.  Will the unpredictable nature of these street intruders lead to calls to for further restrictions on uses of the street? Or by the time self-driving cars make their way to market, will people demand that these wheeled robots be programmed with respect to respect and accommodate the humans using the street as a place?

Or, will the debate between urbanists and suburbanists be inscribed in different use-cases for different types of places, and will the places themselves be designed for these scenarios?  Will Phoenix and Atlanta ban pedestrians from local streets, further limiting the movements of the old, young, and poor, while those who can afford self-driving cars are whisked to their destinations.  Meanwhile, will Portland and parts of Europe move cars outside the city and  require self-driving taxis travel at casual streetcar speeds?

Early visions of the future often forsee automation of the patterns of the present.  They take the social patterns as a given. The uses of emerging transportation technologies are affected by expectations and understandings of land use patterns.

Automated cut-through traffic

An O’Reilly blog post on smart cities praised technology that helps drivers find a ways to route around a traffic jam, reducing pollution. But those algorithmically-discovered back routes, formerly known only only to locals also route impatient drivers through neighborhood streets that were carefully traffic-calmed.   The software, like much of the road system, was designed with the goal of efficiently moving cars, blind to the side effects.

One answer is more data –  program speed limits into the software, and as cars become more automated, eventually slow down the car.

Another answer is more data and different assumptions. The software takes driving in traffic as a given. The software should know that the roads are jammed, and should be able to predict that the roads are going to be jammed at that hour.   And then it could recommend not only an alternate route, but an alternative mode.

Undraining the swamps

Recently I read two good books of environmental history about two different places that are rediscovering the value of wet places. The Big Muddy by Christopher Morris examines the history of the lower Mississippi; Down By the Bay by Matthew Booker explores episodes in the history of the San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco Bay Restoration

In both places, prior to European settlement, Native Americans lived off the rich wetlands ecosystems over long periods of time. The known history on the Mississippi was more complex, with native civilizations shifting among combinations of foraging and agriculture. The cultures in the different places used the shifting cycles of wet and dry, using different food sources at different times, and spending time on high ground in wet seasons.

In both places, when Americans took over from earlier European colonial settlement, they did not value wetlands; they did not even comprehend them as places that are part wet and part dry. Instead, they saw land that was excessively wet, that they invested in drying out and filling in; and they saw water that was chaotic and destructive, that they sought to tame and navigate. The efforts to turn the Mississippi’s floodplain into dry and highly productive agricultural land; the efforts to create farmland from the Bay Delta; to build San Francisco on fill carved out of hills and dredged from the bay; and to tame regular floods, took multiple iterations.

There has been plenty of environmental damage from oil and chemical industries in the Mississippi Delta, but that is not the focus of the Big Muddy. Down By The Bay talks more about the impact of industry on the Bay. Hydraulic mining in the Sierras in the late 1800s had catastrophic impacts, washing down millions of tons of mountainside sediment into the Delta and Bay, causing massive ecological destruction and leaving toxic mercury that remains on Bay floor causing trouble until today. Oil refining and chemical industries have left legacies of toxic pollution in the Bay

Flood protection, the failure of walls as the dominant means of flood protection, and the problems with the concept of flood protection, are key themes of the Big Muddy. Down By the Bay discusses flood protection in the SF Bay Delta as one of several thematic segments on the environmental history of the Bay; but the book doesn’t go into depth on the vulnerability of Delta levees, the ongoing, severe and unresolved conflicts between the Delta’s roles as estuary, fishery, agricultural center and water source for dry parts of California. The California book also doesn’t touch the issues of flooding and flood protection efforts at the Bay’s many tributary creeks, most of which have been channelized.

Both books, in telling the story of the conversion of formerly wet places for massive scale agriculture, also tell the stories of exploitative labor practices; the relatively familiar stories of slavery, share-cropping, and forced levee labor in the south, which are more horrible with more historical detail; and the perhaps less-familiar stories of exploited Chinese immigrant laborers in California. In addition, Down By the Bay focuses on the change from Native American traditions of common land, and Spanish traditions considering tidal areas to be common land, to United States traditions of private property, enclosing the formerly common area for large-scale private advantage.

Only relatively recently have Americans started to understand the unintended consequences of draining wetlands, to understand the value of the partly wet places as rich, self-renewing, resilient ecosystems, and started trying to recapture some of that value in an environment that has been already transformed to a vast extent.

The lower Mississippi has been heavily agricultural; as its capacity for industrial crops declined, some places are starting to turn to a potentially more sustainable mix of rice and fish ponds. There is growing awareness on the Mississippi about how the loss of wetlands has increased coastal erosion and vulnerability to flooding and storms; there are incremental efforts to recreate hardwood forests in some floodplain areas.  . Restoration efforts are proceeding incrementally in the heavily leveed, channelized and polluted Mississippi.  It is not clear how much will there is, and how feasible it would be to create more somewhat more flexible responses to the river’s flood cycles.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the initiatives to reestablish wetlands have been driven by an environmentalist perspective seeing the bay as a natural habitat to be protected from humans and to be enjoyed by watching. Booker incorporates many assumptions of ecological science and environmentalism, including attentiveness to the richness of wetlands ecosystems, value for ways that native cultures adapted and flourished in partly-wet places, and displeasure with ways that industrial society uses up and poisons ecosystems.

But Booker is somewhat skeptical of the idea of “restoration.” One of the key indicator species used to test whether the Bay ecosystem is reviving is a soft-shelled clam originally imported from the Atlantic. The success of industrial salt flats at providing habitat for migrating birds, now adopted as the foundation of the Bay’s wildlife refuge, was a happy accident. Booker writes about concerns that the presence of mercury at the Bay floor may prevent the reopening of former salt ponds to tidal flow because of the risk of disturbing mercury in sediments, increasing conversion of mercury to highly toxic methylated form, and harming wildlife.   Since that chapter of the book was written, the South Bay restoration project has gone ahead and opened a few areas to tidal flows, while carefully monitoring for toxicity.  Booker argues that it is nostalgic, but not really possible to return to a past era.

Booker also is critical of the middle-class environmentalist perspective of nature and open space as views to be consumed. The hiking, kayaking, bird-watching, and other outdoor recreational activities are leisure options enjoyed by the middle class and wealthy; activities where people engage with the natural world for sustenance by fishing, gathering mollusks, hunting, etc are marginalized. Booker believes that people will really have regained a relationship with the Bay when humans can be part of the food chain.

The Mississippi efforts to recognize the value of wetlands and adapt to a wetlands environment may be less ideologically environmentalist and even more fragmentary in scale, but the rice/fish ponds and bottomlands hardwood forests incorporate people as participants in the ecosystem.