Sit with the hypothetical idealist. A leading thinker from one sphere could leave one walking away convinced that autonomous vehicles are the savior of Atlanta’s traffic woes and will be ubiquitous in five years. Another industry innovator could make the convincing case that mass transit is the key to releasing the gridlock in this town. And yet another could show the stats on the cost savings with electric vehicles. Minds could be blown.
But the x-factor in traffic innovation, gridlock solvency, pollution-fighting, and commuting efficiency is the prediction of human behavior. And while we have seen society take like ducks to water on certain things, these vehicular behavior progressions are costly. Buying a completely new car costs quite a bit more than a smartphone. Building a mile of heavy rail costs about a billion dollars; building roads is cheaper.
The opportunity cost of switching modes of travel is also a major factor in seeing some of these innovations take flight. Take mass transit: a rider on a MARTA train or bus is at the mercy of the scheduling and routes of that system. People (including this writer, who lives right next to the Chamblee MARTA station) often do not want to sacrifice time and autonomy just to gain the cost and potential time savings of riding the train. Sure, the train frees up time to read or check emails, things that a car driver cannot do. But if that train doesn’t drop the commuter right next to their destination, they have to add in time to walk or ride the bus. That makes mass transit less attractive.
Likewise, MARTA and the new umbrella ATL mass transit agency cannot expand too far beyond demand. In fact, outside of the line that will eventually run from Downtown Atlanta to Emory, MARTA does not have any concrete plans to expand rail. Gwinnett residents voted down MARTA rail expansion in March. A big part of that proposal and other, more firm plans is to have more bus routes, including bus rapid transit. B.R.T. is an express bus system that advocates call a “train on wheels.” That sounds more attractive than regular buses and much more cost effective and attainable than heavy rail, but will people use it? That is far from a guarantee.
Autonomous vehicle technology is mind blowing. The idea of computer-operated cars taking the wheel and driving more safely and efficiently than humans is closer to reality than some realize. Aside from the lack of human judgment aspect, however, there are other big obstacles to driverless cars making a dent in our traffic woes. The more advanced forms of this technology, say, Teslas, are cost prohibitive for many. But even if people started saving their money and buying these fancier cars, the vehicular turnover will not be significant enough anytime soon. For this technology to really make the impact that innovators project, there need to be virtually zero human drivers. Newer cars now are made better and last longer, so therefore people will take longer to upgrade.
But even if every driver needed to buy a new car, the fear of change will also stymie this progression to driverless vehicles. Just the idea of a computer taking the wheel is intimidating. And some people enjoy driving. These factors are glossed over oftentimes when idea people ideate. Human behavior: the x-factor.
Security or certainty is also a speed bump for the proliferation of electric vehicles. EVs, or at least hybrids, have been around for years. But one has to make quite a few concessions to switch over from the combustion engine. Ian Bogost, an Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies at Georgia Tech, wrote about this predicament recently in The Atlantic. He has been looking to upgrade from his rundown Jeep, but electric vehicles just don’t have the mileage range of a tank of gas. He also noted that a traditional 110V outlet takes about a day to charge the average electric car and that most homes would need a modification to allow the faster-charging 240V circuit. Since our society uses mostly gas-powered cars, gas stations are everywhere. Charging stations are in more and more places, but there are far less of those. A practical person may cringe at the idea of uncertainty or a more limited distance on a trip, even if choosing that EV is more cost-effective and eco-friendly.
Making bold statements about the future of commuting and how behind our society or just Atlanta by itself is easy. When I write about traffic, I often receive social media comments or emails about how lacking MARTA is. But even unlimited funds can’t assuage the unpredictability of human behavior. They also cannot pave over the fear of uncertainty. Undoubtedly, better public transportation, more driverless cars, and an increase in electric vehicles will help our commutes. But pushing these inert ideals out of the friend zone will take time, persistence, and patience.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.