Having read some of the responses to my previous post, on the need to provide a more conducive environment for innovation in personal transportation, I feel like I should probably clarify my outlook somewhat.
First, a number of people answered by post by saying that we already have things like the the vehicles I imagined — bicycles, scooters, etc. I’m a big fan of cycling, and I think cities should continue to make investments to make streets more attractive for commuting by bicycle, but I think it’s important to be realistic about what can be accomplished. Many, many Americans — probably most of the ones that currently commute to work by driving alone — will never consider cycling to be a realistic commuting possibility. I’m interested in seeing what can be done to get them into more efficient vehicles. And that is largely about providing a basic level of comfort, as in a climate-controlled, self-propelled vehicle. Those commutes could potentially involve some sort of transit, but to make that happen, one needs to effectively solve the last mile (or last few miles) problem in the suburbs– how do you quickly and easily get people from their homes to a transit node? Ideally, the solution would avoid placement of massive parking decks around transit, as that tends to reduce the land-use improving effects of a transit station.
Second, others have argued that cars are doing just fine, thank you. They’re getting ever more efficient, in some cases smaller, and so on. That’s true, but it misses the scope of the inefficiencies built into the personal automobile. Even the smallest cars on the American market weigh a ton (a Mini clocks in at around 2,500 pounds, if I’m not mistaken). Even the smallest cars are two-seaters, and even the smallest engines can deliver top speeds near 100 mph. For many typical journeys, that’s just a lot more than what a driver needs. What about the potential for something weighing just a few hundred pounds, battery-powered with a range under 40 miles, perhaps a one-seater with room for groceries, and with a typical cruising speed of between 20 and 30 mph? Something like that could eventually retail for the price of a computer, would be far cheaper to run than a car, would be much more energy efficient, and would handle the basic job of getting a lot of people where they need to be. Imagine a future in which you hop in this vehicle which takes you the four miles to the nearest Metro station, drops you off, then travels to the grocery store to pick up the order you placed on your computer before you left, and finally returns to your home and plugs itself in.
Third, some readers intimated that I was being a knee-jerk libertarian in blaming regulation for the failure of innovation in personal transportation. I was trying to make a more sophisticated argument than that, namely, that current vehicle rules block innovation by limiting the types of vehicles which can travel on the road. It’s not that safety regulations are evil, it’s that current safety regulations lock in place the use of a certain kind of vehicle — the big, heavy, gasoline-powered automobile. We need to clear a regulatory space for more and different kinds of vehicle. This will make for some uncomfortable moments; faced with a situation in which nimble little hundred-pound electric vehicles share the road with Escalades, governments will be tempted to regulate away the possibilities for additional development — to condemn a vehicle to sidewalk use and to speeds that are safe for sidewalk use, which is no good. Alternatively, governments will wait until it’s feasible to shift to a new infrastructure from the top down, which is also no good.
What you want to do is create a space where firms can experiment with new designs and compete for customers. That’s hard to do, when the rules of the road have been determined and institutionally reinforced over the course of a century. But I think it needs to be done. The reason we’re all stuck with the car is that there’s no road space available in which alternatives can operate and potentially thrive. Apple can’t sell millions of little iCars, because there’s no place for buyers to use them. They’d have to sell plain old cars, which is an old and tired business, gradual shift in propulsion notwithstanding. Create space for innovative new designs, and you’ll get innovative new designs.