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.

Entrepreneurship is the launching of surprises

Many years ago, I read Kevin Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy, and that got me thinking seriously about building an internet business. Since then, I’ve found that all sorts of interesting people seem to point me back to his website for some interesting thoughts about interesting things. After one such pointing, I checked out his collection of sourced quotes and spotted one from George Gilder (I used the quote as the title of this post) pointing to this article about entrepreneurs and the creation of wealth. The internet is pretty cool.

I regularly find myself attempting to and failing to explain the importance of entrepreneurship and how entrepreneur means something different than business person or capitalist. Well, yes, entrepreneurs are often business people and might even describe themselves as capitalists, but seldom is a capitalist or a business person an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are, in fact, very rare and getting rarer.

One day a couple years ago, I got annoyed by so many people describing themselves as entrepreneurs–feeling that it dilutes the value and meaning of the career–that I tried to wrap some definition around the phrase. I much prefer the way Gilder characterizes entrepreneurship. It’s more than simply making new stuff work; entrepreneurship is about enabling prosperity.

I love how he differentiates between wealth creation and wealth extraction. Some wonderful excerpts:

Read the rest of this entry »

The optimism of beards

I’m seeing a lot more beards lately. I don’t have any stats to back it up (though Google does!), but my gut tells me that beards per capita has skyrocketed. If I’m right, then this is a great sign for the future of innovation. Read the rest of this entry »

Carlson’s Law

In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

– Curtis Carlson

HT Charles Marohn

Incentives, Education, & Religion

Hume and Smith observed that “governments who supported churches with tax dollars got a less religious populace.” In a post at Values & CapitalismIsaac Morehouse extends that thinking to education:

When the church is publicly supported it becomes less responsive to parishioners and less creative in gaining and retaining new members. When churches had to rely solely on voluntary support, they innovated. Sermons became more interesting to the listeners, facilities were built to meet the needs of attendees, and church leaders more aggressively and creatively looked for ways to show the applicability and value of religion to everyday life. This marketing, innovation and energy resulted in greater “consumption” of religious “goods” than in countries where the state supported the church…

It’s silly to suggest that religion cannot exist without state support, and even more absurd to suggest that the federal government could improve upon religion. Yet the vast majority of Americans fail to see the same cause and effect relationship between state funding of education and the level of education among the public.

If you like the idea of a population that is competent in math, science, reading, writing, physics, philosophy, biology, history, economics and every other field of knowledge, you should oppose state support for education. Without resorting to complicated debates about curricula, teachers unions and budgets, the same economic analysis Smith and Hume used to understand the relationship between church and state can be used to understand the relationship between school and state. State support for education results in a less educated populace.


Employers compete for employees; Industries compete for entrepreneurs

Many great companies offer some pretty compelling enticements to join their teams. For a long time, we’ve seen perks like great health benefits, team happy hours, and lunches or breakfasts. More recently, employers have started offering unlimited vacation and 20% time. The trend is toward treating employees like creative, responsible adults. This is great, and I hope to see it continue.

Why is this happening? Speaking personally, we seek to offer this sort of work environment at GuildQuality because I want the people in my life to be in constant pursuit of self-actualization. Entrepreneurs seek to make the world into their image of how it should be, so those who value freedom and respect responsibility seek to bring freedom and responsibility to their workplaces.

But that’s not the only reason. More practically, businesses need great people, and great people want to work in great environments, on great projects, with other great people, where they feel they’re having a great impact. As a result, businesses compete for employees by creating as positive a work environment as possible.

Entrepreneurs, for all their quirks, aren’t so different from employees. They, too, want freedom. They want to work with great people. They want have a positive impact. They want to spend as little time as possible on administrivia and bureaucracy. They want to spend as much time as possible being creative and bringing their ideas to life.

Imagine, then, that industries are like employers for entrepreneurs. The best employees are selectively choosing where they’ll work. They ask themselves questions like,

Where will I have the freedom to be creative?

Where will I be rewarded?

Where will I get to work with wonderful people?

Where will I be able to have an impact?

And where do people want to work now? The internet. And why? Because they have no restrictions on their freedom or opportunity.

Unfortunately, we can’t eat the internet. The internet can’t heal us, nor can it shelter us from the elements. So if we’d like to start seeing real innovation — like the kind Tyler Cowen argues we’ve lost in The Great Stagnation — then as a culture, we have two choices:

1) We could aggressively regulate and corporatize the internet, so that all the profits from that industry would concentrate among only a few really big businesses, and all the time spent being creative and innovating would be consumed by time spent prostrating before bureaucrats for permission and favors. That would make entering the internet industry as distasteful a prospect as it is for other industries, thereby pushing more talented people toward industries that feed, heal, or shelter people.

2) We could strip the drag from the other industries.

Imagine what the built environment would look like if technology’s greatest entrepreneurs pursued a career in real estate development. They wouldn’t, of course, because this is too common a story.

Can you imagine people like Sergey, Larry, Steve, and Bill suffering impediments to their creativity? Of course not. As a result, we can’t dwell in the neighborhoods and homes they build. Nor can we be healed by the procedures they invent, or eat the foods they grow or serve.