Driverless cars are coming yet we’re still building parking garages

When we build let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us.”

John Ruskin

Driverless cars are coming. I don’t know when exactly, but it will be less than ten years. Maybe as soon as five. How long before they become pervasive—so pervasive that the overwhelming majority of vehicular transportation is via an autonomous vehicle? Another five after that? Another twenty? Impossible to say, but when it happens, things are going to be a lot different.

Conventional cars will be like horses. Some people will keep conventional cars for sport or hobby, some people will actually use them for work, but no one else will own them. This isn’t a radical statement; Lots of people are making this prediction.

Getting around. When you want to go somewhere in town, and it’s inconvenient by foot or bicycle, you’ll walk out your front door and a golf-cart sized autonomous electrical vehicle will arrive within a minute. Call it a rickshaw. This rickshaw will take you anywhere within five miles at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

It will cost you less than a dollar a mile. There will be more affordable and more expensive options. You’ll pay more to have a nicer ride, for it to show up quickly, and things like that. You’ll probably pay a membership fee with a particular company to have some sort of preferred or premium service.

In urban areas, rickshaws will spend far less of their time unoccupied, so rides will be cheaper. Suburban and rural residents will have to pay a lot more, because the vehicles in their areas will have more (and much longer) empty legs.

Highway travel. For long-haul travel, you’ll summon a different type of vehicle that’s capable of much faster speeds on highways. It will take more than a minute to show up and it will have a higher minimum fare but a lower per mile rate. And it will go really fast. On a trip from Atlanta to Charleston, you’ll reach speeds of well over 100 MPH. What is now a five hour trip will take less than three, and might cost $100 for a family of four plus their stuff.

If you’d like to ride the bus (which will also be driverless), you’ll need to go to the station to catch it, but it will be even cheaper.

What this means for pedestrians. The rickshaw will deftly avoid collisions, and it will gracefully give right-of-way to cyclists and pedestrians. Minor accidents (between rickshaws and pedestrians, cyclists, and other rickshaws) will be so uncommon that they will make the news.

With the near-elimination from city streets of big cars and driver-error, streets will return to their rightful owners: the pedestrian. Unobstructed paved city surfaces will narrow from their 2 to 6 driving lanes (usually 30′ to 100′) to something less than 20 feet.

As a pedestrian, you won’t walk to the crosswalk before crossing the street, you’ll simply cross—and rickshaws will stop to let you pass. How civilized!

What this means for housing. Great news for the remodeling industry! There are over 100 million houses in America, and most of them have substantial real estate dedicated to car storage. A great many of these houses are designed explicitly to have the occupants interact with the world via their car (i.e. the main entry to the house is via the garage or via the back door).

We have seen a huge boom in aging in place remodeling. The next big boom will be even bigger than aging in place: Our remodeling industry will be repurposing the vestigial car-dedicated square footage to other uses (granny flats and dependencies, also known in the industry as “accessory dwelling units” or ADUs) and reconfiguring existing living space to re-orient residents’ traffic back through the front door.

Density, Accessory Dwelling Units, and Housing Affordability. You might be thinking, “City councils started outlawing ADUs decades ago. There’s no way they’ll let people rent out their converted garages as apartments! Right?”

I don’t think this change will happen overnight, but it’s worth remembering that two huge reasons ADUs have become illegal in many cities are PARKING and TRAFFIC! Parking is expensive and limited in urban environments, and as we became more of a car culture, renters began consuming more of our car storage. So we got our city councils to outlaw them. When the idea of “more people” no longer triggers concerns about more car traffic (odious and dangerous) and more limited parking (annoying), the fear of ADUs (and housing density in general) will evaporate.

And when people can rent out a small apartment in their home, we diversify the housing stock while dramatically lowering the effective cost of home ownership. That’s right: Driverless cars will create affordable housing.

Great for cities, good for suburbs. I know plenty of urbanists who worry that self-driving cars will make suburbs more desirable. I think self-driving cars will make things easier for everyone, regardless of where they live, and they’ll have the biggest positive impact on cities. Why?

Today’s cars are horrible for pedestrians. They are loud. They stink. They take up space. They are scary and deadly. When you remove cars and car storage from cities, cities become cleaner, quieter, and more beautiful. Without cars our cities gain a tremendous amount of real estate for human uses like living, sleeping, eating, shopping, playing, and working. Imagine downtown Atlanta with every parking garage replaced by a human use. Imagine the streets. Imagine the new shops, offices, condos, and apartments. Imagine the vibrancy. That is coming and it’s not too far away.

In suburbs, things won’t change nearly as much. They are designed largely to insulate people from unpleasant interactions. Driverless cars will improve suburbs, but not nearly so much as they will improve cities. So while it will be a positive for all locations, it will be a huge win for city living.

With all these great changes coming, why are we still making 1980s-type infrastructure investments? Parking garages are expensive. Highway widenings are expensive. MARTA stations are expensive. Trolleys are expensive. We’re spending our children’s money on things they will never use. It’s time to rethink that and start getting assumptive.

Here are two straightforward and free ways that cities can get ahead of the curve:

  1. Accessory Dwelling Units. Re-legalize ADUs. In my neighborhood in Atlanta, ADUs were legal until a few decades ago. Now the city relies on parking-frenzied neighbors to rat out other neighbors who have the gall to lease their basement to a graduate student or a young couple. The prohibitions turn neighbor against neighbor. Let’s put an end to that pronto.
  2. Eliminate minimum parking requirements. In intown Atlanta, the cost of using Uber or Lyft is already approaching the cost of owning a car. We shouldn’t force the extra expense of parking garages on people who could more affordably or comfortably live in the city if they weren’t forced to also pay for car storage they don’t need. What’s worse (much worse) is that 20 years from now, “parking” will be a thing of the distant past!

So why are we still building parking garages? Why are we still widening highways? Let’s envision the future we want to have 50 years from now, and start building it. We have new technologies today (and a great many coming very soon) that will enable us to live much better in the future. Ignoring those and continuing to build like it’s 1980 pushes our great future farther into the distance.

School and Anxiety



Peter Gray presented some data about the correlation between anxiety in children and the school calendar in an article in his Freedom to Learn series.

“Kids are people,” Gray writes, “and they respond just as adults do to micromanagement, to severe restrictions on their freedom, and to constant, unsolicited evaluation.”

I thought a chart might make it easier to digest, so I put this one together via Google Sheets.

This looks only at data from the Hartford Connecticut Children’s Mental Center. I’d love to see this on a national scale, for specific cities and regions, and–though I can’t imagine how the data would be collected–from school to school (including homeschoolers and unschoolers).

On Doers: My interview with Michael Tavani

Last week, Michael Tavani (of Switchyards and Scoutmob) visited GuildQuality’s headquarters to interview me for his On Doers series. I’ve known Michael via Twitter for years, and this was the first time I’d met him face to face. What a super guy. Thanks Michael. I am honored to be a part of this.

Toiling at others’ preoccupations

“Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”

Seneca, via Brain Pickings

The CEO as Steward of the Tree

Some friends and I were recently discussing the CEO job description, with each of us sharing what we do everyday. The CEO role is different from that of a Founder, and I approach my responsibilities as CEO by viewing myself as Steward of the Tree.

Over the years, we have nurtured a tiny seed of a company into a healthy little tree. Our tree helps all sorts of creatures live their lives: it offers shade for customers, fruit for owners, and branches on which employees can build their nests. The leaves that fall during autumn decompose and fertilize the forest floor of our community. Our seeds scatter in the wind, take root elsewhere in the forest, and begin their own journey toward tree-dom.

Our tree is still young, and has plenty more room to grow. My task as Steward of the Tree is to help it fulfill its potential – to grow to maturity so that it’s impact is amplified many times over what it is now.

I can make reckless decisions that stunt its growth or kill it. I might push it to grow at a rate that’s ultimately unhealthy, and would cause its branches to weaken or would jeopardize it’s strength by not giving its roots time enough to dig deeper into the soil. Or I might be negligent or lackadaisical, so that other trees reach up and block our sunshine, and then our little tree will wither.

When I’m being most effective, there’s not really anything that I must do. The tree is just fine without me tending to it for a few days. But there is always something I could be doing: whether it’s pruning a rogue branch, inspecting a fungus, or simply learning about how to help trees be healthier.

If there’s nothing in particular that I need to do on a given day, rather than feeling lost, useless, or guilty about it (which I’ve come to learn is a common feeling among CEOs), I should feel some pride: I have helped a seed grow to a strapping young tree that doesn’t need my immediate attention. If the tree needs my constant tending—if I am fighting back blights or urgently toting buckets of water during dry spells—then perhaps I am tending it in the wrong way. That’s probably a signal that I could be doing a better job as a steward.

A core responsibility of the steward is to provide. Provide comes from the Latin prōvidēre, with prō meaning “forward,” and vidēre meaning “to see.” To be a provider, one must literally see forward.

Our executive team recently finished The Hard Thing about Hard Things, and we spent a good bit of time on the one of the common themes in the book: the difference between “wartime” and “peacetime” CEOs. In growing our business through four years of a great economic apocalypse, every day certainly felt like battle, and I’m grateful to have shared that difficult journey with some incredibly talented and committed people.

Today, we may not feel so many immediate threats to our existence—we have enough recurring revenue, enough operating income, and enough cash on hand to withstand a great many blows—but insidious threats still loom. We are no longer battling to ensure that our tree survives until tomorrow or next month. Today, we battle to ensure that our tree is thriving years from now. The threats are less obvious and palpable (which makes some aspects of the steward’s job more challenging), but they’re still all around us. We must still combat our greatest enemy: complacency.

A handful of writings and people that have influenced my thinking about the CEO’s job:

The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono

How Andreesen Horowitz evaluates CEOs, Ben Horowitz (this post was also in THTAHT)

What a CEO Does, Fred Wilson

I first came across the “CEO as Steward” analogy from one of our customers, Scott Barr of Southwest Exteriors, an accomplished remodeler in San Antonio.

Communication is terrible

Via Fast Company

One of Bezos’s more memorable behind-the-scenes moments came during an off-site retreat, says Risher. “People were saying that groups needed to communicate more. Jeff got up and said, ‘No, communication is terrible!’ ” The pronouncement shocked his managers. But Bezos pursued his idea of a decentralized, disentangled company where small groups can innovate and test their visions independently of everyone else. He came up with the notion of the “two-pizza team”: If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large. That limits a task force to five to seven people, depending on their appetites.

(Really) Young Entrepreneurs

Thou shall not pass without buying some lemonade or iced tea

My kids are always starting businesses. They aren’t often successful businesses, but I love their effort and their indomitable spirit.

The lemonade business has been pretty good, but only when they time it right. The front-yard restaurant was surprisingly successful despite them selling only imaginary food. But the rock business! That one was horrible.

Both my kids love rocks. They don’t love rocks so much that they’d be willing to buy one, but their love for rocks is so strong that they believe other people would gladly pay 50¢ for any one of the small stones they’ve pulled from the creek behind our house.

Two winters ago, when the lemonade business wasn’t really a good option, they set up their rock stand and tried selling to passers-by. Whenever anyone would get close, Alex would shout, “Rocks for sale! Get your cool rocks here!”

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough foot traffic for them to get any real traction, so they decided to take their game on the road. They bagged up the rocks, and started walking around the neighborhood. I tagged along.

Read the rest of this entry »