Autonomous vehicles and rules of traffic

2018/06/25

Update: This article from NYT has some nice resonance with some of these themes.

I live in Boston (well, Cambridge), and my primary mode of transport is by bicycle. Bicycle infrastructure is changing quickly in the city, and I travel a lot to other cities, so I like to think about how we get around. I’m biased toward cycling because that’s what I do, but I drive in the city often enough to know that it’s confusing and scary no matter what kind of vehicle you’re in.

In reading a RAND Corporation article (“What If Autonomous Vehicles Actually Make Us More Dependent on Cars?”), I was led to some fascinating work.

First, a BBC article about the origin of jaywalking. The US was the first country to have strong jaywalking laws, and they appear to have come about mostly as a publicity move by the auto industry, which wanted to put the blame for negative car-people interactions, as much as possible, onto pedestrians:

The use of jaywalking as a term of ridicule against pedestrians crossing roads took off in the 1920s. […] A key moment […] was a petition signed by 42,000 people in Cincinnati in 1923 to limit the speed of cars mechanically to 25mph (40kph). Though the petition failed, an alarmed auto industry scrambled to shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers. […] [C]ar lobby groups also started taking over school safety education, stressing that “streets are for cars and children need to stay out of them”. Anti-jaywalking laws were adopted in many cities in the late 1920s, and became the norm by the 1930s.

The author privileges the viewpoint of the pedestrian under the reasoning that the drivers’ viewpoint is usually the privileged one:

“People in law-enforcement tend to identify with a motorist’s perspective”, [a lawyer who specialises in pedestrian and bicycle law] says. Wherever there’s a push to protect the rights of pedestrians, officials feel they also need to enforce limits on them. “It’s their version of being fair,” he says. “The difference is that no jaywalking pedestrian ever ran down and killed a driver, and by sheer survival strategy most pedestrians don’t jaywalk in front of cars.”

(I make a similar argument when I write to my city councillors about bicycle infrastructure: sure, maybe it’s perfect, and sure, maybe it will hurt the flow of traffic a little, but I consider that completely worth mitigating the fear of death that comes from having to share the road with 2,000 pound boxes of metal that can achieve killing speed if someone moves their foot by four inches.)

That BBC article in turn points to an article about the idea of “Shared Space”, pioneered by the Dutch traffic engineer/philosopher Hans Monderman. Moderman thought that complex signage and separated areas for cars, bikes, and people encouraged a mindset that you don’t need to be careful if you’re in the space you “own”:

” ‘All those road signs,’ he once said, ‘they all essentially tell you the same thing: just drive, don’t worry, drive as fast as you want, no reason to pay attention to what’s going on around you. And that’s a dangerous message.’ “

Some other tidbits:

“[N]o one hooted their horns or yelled at Monderman when he simply strolled out onto the square into traffic, asking rhetorically, ‘Who has the right of way?’ He didn’t actually care. ‘People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.’ “

Traffic accidents declined after implementation of these projects, apparently because drivers decreased their speeds and everyone generally was more careful, probably because they were just a little scared: “[T]he residents subjectively report feeling less safe in the absence of traffic lights or crossings, even though objective research shows that removing them improves safety.” I think this is fascinating: we generally prefer to feel more safe because we have arbitrary protections rather than acknowledge that we are less safe because we have them.

Put all of this against the backdrop of the Koch brothers’ campaigns to stop implementation of public transit projects, arguing that we’ll have really clean, really safe driverless cars really soon:

Supporters of transit investments point to research that shows that they reduce traffic, spur economic development and fight global warming by reducing emissions. Americans for Prosperity counters that public transit plans waste taxpayer money on unpopular, outdated technology like trains and buses just as the world is moving toward cleaner, driverless vehicles.

I have no concluding statement, other than to say that I’m really curious what we’ll do with our infrastructure in the coming decades. Having grown up near New York City, I visited Times Square multiple times before it was transformed into a pedestrian plaza. Coming from a driver-centric suburban town, I never imagined that the Square would turn into a pedestrian plaza. Mayor Bloomberg thought it would help traffic, decrease pollution, and reduce car-pedestrian accidents. Local business owners thought it would hurt their businesses. In fact, the plaza had mixed results on traffic, decreased accidents, and increased the number of pedestrians. I think it just goes to show that finding the right solution to these problems will be matters of public debated informed by empirical fact.