Denver Can’t Count on Automated Vehicles to Fix Our Busted Transportation System

Seattle has made a ton of progress without futuristic tech, and so can we.

From left, Denver Public Works Executive Director Eulois Cleckley, Metro Denver Chamber President Kelly Brough, Seattle City Traffic Engineer Donho Chang, and former Seattle DOT chief Scott Kubly. Photo: Jack Todd/Bicycle Colorado
From left, Denver Public Works Executive Director Eulois Cleckley, Metro Denver Chamber President Kelly Brough, Seattle City Traffic Engineer Donho Chang, and former Seattle DOT chief Scott Kubly. Photo: Jack Todd/Bicycle Colorado

The auto industry probably loves Colorado’s enthusiastic embrace of automated vehicles. But if decision-makers bet on robo-cars as a transportation panacea, to the exclusion of proven urban transportation solutions, they risk repeating past mistakes that hollowed out urban centers and deepened our dependence on cars. We can make our city streets safer and more efficient today — no tech wizardry needed.

That’s the takeaway from the opening panel at Bicycle Colorado’s Moving People Forward conference Tuesday. Seattle City Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang and former Seattle transportation chief Scott Kubly, who’ve helped Seattle grow without adding car traffic, cautioned against treating tech as a silver bullet.

“Connected vehicles and autonomous vehicles, it’s a game changer,” Chang allowed. “But we still have the same amount of space.”

In other words, even if robo-cars eventually let people give up owning their own cars, they could still swamp cities in a torrent of traffic. With or without automated vehicles, it’s up to public officials to prioritize walking, biking, buses, and trains to make the most of scarce urban real estate.

You think single-occupancy vehicles clog streets? Think about zero-occupancy vehicles — shared-fleet robocars in search of fare-paying passengers.

“It may free up resources, it will give people mobility options — I think that’s a great thing — but I don’t think that’s really, long-term, a sustainable solution,” Chang said. Helping people get around by walking, biking, and transit is still the way to go.

Chang was responding to Denver Public Works Executive Director Eulois Cleckley, who said “we need to prepare for” the arrival of autonomous and connected vehicles. Cleckley, who lives car-free, said the investment from the car industry and Silicon Valley in automated vehicles, estimated at $80 billion in 2016 alone, led him to believe the technology will be ready for market at some point.

Part of Cleckley’s job is to prepare for that. But maybe the most important way to prepare for autonomous vehicles is ensuring that Denver works for other modes of transport first. Then the city can absorb robo-cars without being overrun by them.

The city is just beginning to correct for 70 years of planning for car traffic to the exclusion of other ways to get around. There’s still so much work to do here and now to reverse an approach that kills people with dangerous street designs, contributes to poverty, and hinders economic development.

“I think if we look at 1900 to 2005, we spent all of our time and effort designing our cities around cars,” Kubly said. “And then for about a 10-to-12 year period we’ve been trying to undo that and plan around people — people walking, biking, and getting around on transit. What I worry about with [automated vehicles] is that people are gonna fall in love with technology and the idea that technology will solve all of our problems, and we’re gonna spend the next 80 years planning for cars again.”

Then there are less concrete but equally important aspects of the automated vehicle equation. What will public life be like in Denver be if everyone gets shuttled from origin to destination in their own boxes?

“We’re a society, we’re people, we interact with each other,” Chang said. “A closed vehicle community, that’s not what society is all about, what an urban environment should be. It should be places where we want to interact with people, walk around. I think going back to the past is what our future is.”

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