Will Google Cars Boost City Productivity?

Prototype of the Google self-driving car.
Prototype of the Google self-driving car.

The spread of Self-Driving Cars (SDCs) will lead to tremendous increases in the productivity of cites, argues Brian Wang in The Next Big Future blog. Wang builds his argument on claims by Google that the ability of SDCs to drive faster and closer with greater safety than human-driven cars will effectively double the capacity of roadways. In turn, doubling roadway capacity will eliminate a major limit to urban density. Doubling effective density, according to a variety of economic research, will result in a 12.5% increase in productivity. Furthermore, in today’s conditions, doubling a city’s population requires only an 85% increase in infrastructure to support it; strip out the need to upgrade roads, and infrastructure spending is even less. “In general,” writes Wang, “creating and operating the same infrastructure at higher densities is more efficient, more economically viable, and often leads to higher-quality services and solutions that are impossible in smaller places.”

Sounds great. Just one problem. Wang ignores the crucial distinction between roads and streets. Roads and highway, designed for the efficient movement of automobiles between far-apart destinations, very well could double in capacity if Google’s calculations are correct. However, city streets serve a very different function, especially as the Complete Streets movement takes hold. Streets provide local access to cars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians alike; they also help define public spaces. Doubling the speed of cars in city streets would displace other modes of conveyance despite ample evidence that people are yearning for more walkability. In other words, it won’t happen. City dwellers won’t let it happen.

It is appropriate to think of SDCs as a solution to the problem of congested roads and highways, and far-sighted transportation planners should begin scaling back their estimates of how much new construction will be needed over the next 20 years to achieve desired levels of mobility. But it would be folly to turn city streets over to SDCs at the expense of bikes, buses and pedestrians. That would destroy cities’ greatest competitive advantage in the emerging knowledge economy.


Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


9 responses to “Will Google Cars Boost City Productivity?”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I just want to point out – once again – that we have an issue here – that if left unregulated for the free market to work out – the outcome would be different.

    we oppose regulation that limits density (ostensibly) and we favor regulation of something that provides benefits to some – at expense to others.

    isn’t this the fundamental tension for virtually ANY regulation?

    so.. ARE YOU… Jim Bacon – advocating for regulation here? no weaseling… yes or no..

    1. In the United States, it falls to state and local government to build, design and maintain nearly all streets and roads. It is accepted by 99.99% of the population — including me — that “regulating” of the use of streets and roads for the public safety and convenience is a legitimate government function. Why are we having this conversation?

      1. larryg Avatar

        It’s Federal, State and Local…

        it does not need to be public… it can be private – and it is in some places …

        but anything that involves something that benefits the public – also has costs – when you regulate.

        there are opportunity costs – and there are costs to businesses who are affected by regulation.

        public roads, clean air, clean water, pure food and drugs, health care…

        all these things are regulated – for the same basic reason that roads are…

        I’m trying to understand – where the dividing line is – when regulation clearly harms ALL interests and is not a tradeoff between competing interests.

        I’m trying to better understand Conservative philosophy on this.

        Conservatives might make up the 99.99% but they have very different rules about regulation than non-Conservatives..

        I point this out – to demonstrate that even folks who say they are Conservative and opposed to “unnecessary” and “harmful” regulation – have no problem at all calling for regulation either.. so when we hear from Conservatives that “job killing regulation” is what is “killing” our economy – how exactly does this relate to something like self-driving cars – where CLEARLY you are advocating regulation – at the same time you oppose regulation for Uber and other taxi type services… that also use public streets?

        do you see any similarity in the issues and if we’re talking about the use of public streets – that regulation of them – is a legitimate role of government?

        are you opposed to regulation of Uber taxi services but in favor of regulation of self-driving cars?

        I think you need BOTH.. but when I say I favor regulation – I get called a “leftist” … when you do – it’s “justified”… and 99.99% support it.


  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Doesn’t every car have to be robot driven before they can start flying down the road separated by mere inches? All it would take is one wingnut like me in my F150 to start a wreak that could go on for miles.

    I think the better question is what happens when the idea of car ownership loses its attraction. If cars don’t need drivers then I can call one and have it come pick me up and take me where I am going. When I get to the destination the car can go find another fare. Why would I own a car when it spends 23 hours a day sitting idle?

    Now, if there are lots of self-driving cars buzzing around what are the odds that I want to go somewhere along roughly the same route as somebody else? Pretty good I reckon. So, the car picks me up, picks up the other passenger, drops us both off where we want to go and charges us a lot less than if we occupied the car individually. Assuming that not all the savings go to the riders the company which owns the car prioritizes shared rides ahead of individual rides because shared rides are more profitable.

    Travel with a stranger? It only sounds odd when you think in terms of using a vehicle you own. Every bus trip, airplane ride, train trip, etc involves traveling with strangers. Biometric identification of the riders coupled with a video identification of the inside of the car during the trip would reduce crime to near zero. Yeah – a crook could hold up a fellow passenger. However, the police would know exactly who the criminal is and would have slam dunk evidence of the crime. Even the stupidest criminal would have to think twice.

    1. larryg Avatar

      I would think that entrepreneurs using modern database and smartphone technology would offer each person – options – price, availability, travel time, etc.

      want to get somewhere super fast – for a price – no problem.

      want to get somewhere super cheap- no problem – pick your pain!

      but I think we’d be foolish if we did not also include the very best option for most people – and that is – all of a sudden you want a Haagen Daz and today’s copy of the IBD – so you grab your keys, walk out the door, get in your car and get your stuff … no muss, no fuss.. no waiting around wondering why the car you were promised in 5 minutes still has not arrived in 20 minutes.

      people are still going to own cars.. for a long, long time.

    2. larryg Avatar

      re: ” Doesn’t every car have to be robot driven before they can start flying down the road separated by mere inches? All it would take is one wingnut like me in my F150 to start a wreak that could go on for miles.”

      agree.. the prospect of DJ tailgating a self-driving car by mere inches and in turn him tailgated by a self-driving car by mere inches conjures up all kinds of Far Side cartoon images…


      self-driving cars will do fine with other self-driving cars but a whole new software program will have to be developed for self-driving cars to know how to react to people-driven cars – hundreds of different kinds of situations and driving styles beyond the single behavior of essentially cloned self-driving cars.

      what will a self-driving car do when it is in the left lane and a people-driven car passes it on the right and cuts back in front of it?

      there are as many different kinds of aberrant driving behaviors as there are different kinds of human drivers, and my suspect is that only one kind of driving behavior is embedded in the electronic innards of a SDC.

      Now… a SMART self-driving car would:

      1. – LEARN the other behaviors as it encounters them
      2. – SHARE them with other self-driving cars
      3. – monitor any/all bad driving behaviors of humans
      4. – upload the license info to a stand-by “smart” drone that will then send plate info and a live video feed to officer friendly up ahead.

      the more I think about these new technologies the more I like the idea that we could provide virtual wedgies to some of the smart-asses on the highways these days.

  3. Darrell Avatar

    Will google cars increase productivity? What a laugh. People are already beginning to work to their wage level. As wages continue to decrease in value, the amount of work performed decreases to match the perceived wage value. Robot cars have zero influence on American workers who just no longer give a damn.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I’ve had those same thoughts about people working to their wage level and not giving a damn. Then I convince myself that I am just getting to be one of those old crotchety guys who thinks the country is going to hell in hand basket (an my Dad would say). Now that I read your comments I have to wonder again – maybe the country is going to hell in a hand basket.

      1. larryg Avatar

        every father’s father said the country if going to hell in a handbasket


        ..used to be I walked 9 miles to school in my bare feet then stayed late to clean toilets then ran home to do homework …

        yadda yadda yadda blather blather blather…

        The 21st century is not your father’s oldsmobile.

        Used to be you got a good job – and that was a career and the company would take care of you – that world is gone.

Leave a Reply