"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
— George Santayana

Autonomous vehicle technology is exciting, cutting edge, potentially life-altering, and ultimately terrifying. My fear doesn’t come from the typical “oh no, robots are taking over” attitude, though.* Instead, I see a lot of parallels between our current excitement about autonomous vehicles and past urban planning decisions fueled by progress for the sake of progress that had staggering and unforeseen implications.

The decisions I am referencing to are, of course, those that brought us the interstate highway system. Some planning scholars argue that the interstate highways system is the largest public works project in history, and nearly all recognize that it fundamentally shifted the American landscape from an urban to a suburban one, helped to proliferate the use of automobiles, and ripped many inner-city neighborhoods apart.

This piece is not about those impacts — rather, it is a critique of the way that we look back on the 20th-century planners who were there during these fundamental shifts. I would like to make the case that, while we like to think that we have learned from our mistakes, our current situation with autonomous vehicle technology is more similar than we think to that of the one planners dealt with when facing the emerging motorized carriage.

I don’t know about other urban planning graduate students, but I sometimes find myself falling into the trap of looking back on urban planners of the mid-20th century with a disturbing sense of misguided superiority. This is because, like any good Masters of Urban and Regional Planning graduate student in 2016, I love my walkable, mixed-use, and multimodal urban core. I relish in the diversity of life and movement that this brings to a society.

This, of course, is not what urban planning progress between the 1910s and the 1960s looked like. Rather, progress during this time was the automobile. The automobile was exciting, it got better each year, and it provided Americans with unprecedented independence.** The story in my mind said that we can’t be too hard on planners of the time because they just got wrapped up in the progress of their time and didn’t quite understand, like we do now, that cities are about the people interacting in them and not the cars running through them.

Honestly, how could people then not think that a future utopia was founded on cars — this was a machine that moved on its own rather than one that dragged you in a carriage behind an animal that would poop in the street! Their hearts were in the right place, but at least we’ve learned from their mistakes and know how to plan better now. This attitude is kind of like how I like to imagine our founding fathers might have spoken about the British monarchy that they left:

"I mean, obviously we know now that a government by the people and for the people is best but we can’t be too hard on the British. The divine right of the King must have seemed plausible to rulers that didn’t know what we know about the world now, you know?"

I realized that I’ve told myself this kind of story over the past year about highways during the mid-20th century, and I bet other planning students have as well. The only problem is that it is not really true. Urban planners during the rise of the automobile did understand the benefits of multimodalism and wanted it in their cities, but they ultimately lost to the progress-minded enthusiasm and enormous financial might of the automobile.

At the first National Conference for City Planning in 1909, transportation planners were already facing growing congestion because of the automobile but they didn’t recommend dedicated super-lanes that prioritized the vehicle above everything else (i.e. freeways), they stressed multi-modalism. Conference-goers “advocated weaving facilities for private vehicles, streetcars, and pedestrians together into a coordinated system to provide access to healthier living.” Holy smokes! This kind of language sounds like something that I’d expect from a transit-oriented development conference in 2016, rather than the first City Planning conference in 1909.

If our predecessors actually knew about and valued multimodalism, why did it get lost along the way? Well, to oversimplify a complex process that happened over half a century, multimodalism was drowned out by enormous governmental funding that focused on an engineering problem of maximizing vehicle through-put rather than a human problem of helping people access their destinations.

Even when freeways were first introduced to help mitigate congestion, they were coupled with strong multimodal components like light rail and bus lanes, but theses didn’t materialize. Rather, public infrastructure financing mechanisms shifted from city control to state control, where transportation engineers main concern was to maximize safe traffic flows and move cars in and out of city centers as efficiently as possible. Unlike planners whose arguments had many intangible elements based on quality of life, engineers could provide tangible and quantifiable plans for progressively faster, safer, and more efficient freeways!

While anyone interested in learning more about how this transition happened should read “Planning for Cars in Cities” by Jeffrey Brown, Eric A. Morris, and Brian Taylor, my argument is not based on the particular mechanisms of this defeat; rather, it is focused on the fact that multimodalism was a recognized priority in 1910 in the first place. Remember when I said I sometimes fall into the trap of misguided superiority? This is the misguided part of that. It’s like if my fictionalized Thomas Jefferson and John Adams realized that the British had actually attempted democracy before them!

I was normally pretty optimistic when I thought about the future of our cities because, as much progress as something like our interstate highway brought us, we at least also recognize some of the mistakes that we made along the way. I thought, at least now we know that we need to remember that we want multimodalism even while we shoot for progress. The fact that the benefits of multimodalism were actually recognized before the freeway boom and lost, however, spoils this reasoning.

I consider this now when I think about what our future with autonomous vehicles will look like. Autonomous vehicles are, similar to freeways in the 20th century, backed by astounding sources of money (Google, Uber, Ford) and based on futuristic technology that quenches our current obsession with optimization. We won’t just have cities where every trip is in an autonomous vehicle and there is no point in investing in costly public infrastructure though, right?

At least now we know that we want to keep some variety in the way that we get around our cities rather than focusing solely on efficiency, right? I’m actually not so sure any more. Money and the quest for progress trumped sound, human-scale planning once before, how do we know it won’t happen again?

* OK, fine, there is some of that, too. 
Brown, J. R., Morris, E. A., & Taylor, B. D. (2009). Planning for cars in cities: Planners, engineers, and freeways in the 20th century. Journal of the American Planning Association, 75(2), 161-177.
† Committee on the District of Columbia, United States Senate, 1910/1967.
‡ Brown, J. R., Morris, E. A., & Taylor, B. D. (2009). Planning for cars in cities: Planners, engineers, and freeways in the 20th century. Journal of the American Planning Association, 75(2), 161-177.

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