Transportation, Land Use, and Freedom

Randal O’Toole joins us for a discussion on land usage, urban planning, public transit, transportation, and driverless cars.

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Henry Ford’s mass production of the automobile ushered in a new era of human mobility, one that public planners always seem to be attempting to steer the American public away from. 

How is transportation important to human freedom and flourishing?

How much are we spending on public transit? When, if ever, does public transportation make sense?

What will driverless cars do for traffic congestion? Are driverless cars going to cause people to drive more? Less? Are there any potential roadblocks to driverless cars?

Show Notes and Further Reading

O’Toole’s books on various topics: The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities (2001), The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future (2007), and American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership (2012).

Randal O’Toole blogs at The Antiplanner.

Trevor mentions this article from The Onion (satire): “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.


Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.

Tom Clougherty: And I’m Tom Clougherty.

Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in urban growth, public land and transportation issues. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Randal.

Randal O’Toole: Hey, I’m glad to be here.

Trevor Burrus: So the first question is the big one as we often do on Free Thoughts. How is transportation important to human freedom and flourishing?

Randal O’Toole: Well mobility is really important because mobility gives people access to more economic resources, more social resources, more recreation opportunities. Mobility of course has completely transformed in the 20th century. Before 1800, hardly anybody in the world had ever traveled faster than a horse could run and lived to tell about it. Although during the …

Trevor Burrus: Lived to tell about it, it’s like people who fell out of hot air balloons and …

Randal O’Toole: Or off a cliff.

Trevor Burrus: So they got a quick moment of – OK.

Randal O’Toole: Yeah. So by 1900, we had developed steam trains and bicycles and streetcars and cable cars and those things accelerated the pace of life for many people and yet by 1910, most Americans were no more mobile than they had been in 1800 because frankly streetcars and steam trains and things like that were more expensive than the average American could afford.

Most Americans still lived in rural areas and they didn’t have access to those, to streetcars or bicycles. Even Americans in urban areas, only middle class people could afford streetcars. Pretty much working class people had to walk to work. It was only when Henry Ford developed a moving assembly line that allowed him to both double worker pay and cut the cost of his cars in half, which made automobiles affordable to the working class that suddenly mobility was democratized and suddenly travel speed is accelerated from an average of 3 miles an hour to an average of 30 miles an hour or more.

That gave people access to far more jobs. If you were producing something, it gave you access to a far bigger consumer market. If you wanted to socialize with people who were like you, you didn’t have to live right next door to them. You could get into your car and be near them. You have access to recreation opportunities. Things like national parks became popular only after the car became popular. Before cars – the number of people visiting Yellowstone and people like – places like that were numbered in the hundreds or low thousands each year. Now it’s the millions.

Trevor Burrus: Now you certainly have no Disneyland without people being able to drive to it and …


Randal O’Toole: You don’t have Costco. You don’t have supermarkets. You don’t have Wal-marts. You don’t have a lot of things that we take for granted today. Shopping malls, a lot of things. So the auto mobility transform lives for many people. For example, the only way blacks were able to boycott buses in Montgomery, Alabama after Rosa Louise Parks refused to get – walk to the back of the bus was because they had enough cars that they could transport each other to work.

So cars were called by Blacks freedom vehicles. Cars play a huge role in women’s liberation. It was only when families became two-car families and both the husband and the wife could own it, could have a car and become wage or salary earners that women’s liberation became truly an important change in our lives.

So cars have transformed everybody’s lives. Cars have transformed farming for example. Before cars, at least a quarter, perhaps a third of all of our farmland was dedicated to pasture for the horses and other livestock needed to power the farms.

By releasing that land, we ended up getting 100 million acres of forest lands, 100 million acres of crop lands. We have far more lands available for growing crops than we had before because of the internal combustion engine, powering tractors and trucks and other farm vehicles.

Trevor Burrus: Well, if you talk to people now though, it’s kind of – I mean it is this mind-blowing thing when you start thinking about the effect that the car had on American life. But now a lot of people want to say that cars are bad for a variety of reasons, not seeming to understand the effect on this and a lot of the kind of urban planning and ideas of what a city should look like, it seems to be kind of anti-car in some basic level.

Randal O’Toole: That’s absolutely right. There’s a huge anti-automobile mentality out there, especially among urban planners and curiously, every city in the country has urban planners on their staff because they think they’re the experts. But it’s actually because the Supreme Court has made decisions that have said that the property rights clause or the Fifth Amendment of the constitution can be amended if you have an urban – can be ignored if you have an urban planner on your staff. Basically, you don’t have to worry about that if you have an urban planner who has written an urban plan for your city.

Trevor Burrus: This is like Kelo pursuant …


Randal O’Toole: Every single Supreme Court decision that has taken away people’s property rights has mentioned in that decision that the city or other entity that wanted to take away people’s property rights had written an urban plan. So if you have an urban planner on your staff, you can ignore property rights. You can take land by eminent domain. You can regulate land without compensation if you have an urban planner on your staff.

So they all have urban planners and urban planners all go to the same schools and most of these schools are architecture schools where they learn that we shape our buildings and our buildings shape up.

So if we want to shape society, we have to design our cities in a way to shape the way people live. Well, it has been proven over and over again that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t get people out of their cars, to force people to live in high densities.

San Francisco for example, the San Francisco Bay area increases population density by two-thirds between 1980 and 2010 and per capita driving increased. Per capita transit ridership declined by a third. It didn’t change anything at all except for it made a lot more congestion.

So there’s an anti-automobile mentality and the reality is most of the – virtually all of the problems with automobiles can be solved by treating the problem, not by treating the automobile.

Trevor Burrus: Like congestion you mean.

Randal O’Toole: Well, congestion, air pollution, greenhouse gases, energy, traffic accidents, whatever. In 1970, people drove about 40 percent as much as they do today and we had 55,000 people killed per year. So today we’re driving 150 percent more and we only had 33,000 people killed last year. So fatalities are going down because they made both automobiles and highways safer. That’s only going to increase.

In 1970, many of our cities were polluted. You had a mile of visibility or less. In Portland, you couldn’t see Mount Hood. In Seattle, you couldn’t see Mount Rainier because the pollution is so bad. So we created the Environmental Protection Agency to solve the problem and they said let’s do two things. Let’s put pollution control requirements on new cars but let’s also encourage cities to discourage driving by spending more on transit and increasing densities to encourage people to live closer to work.

Well, they did both things and today, pollution has gone down by more than 90 percent. Total pollution has decreased by more than 90 percent from what it was in 1970 and 105 percent of that decline is due to the pollution controls they put on cars. Negative 105 because …

Trevor Burrus: More than 100 percent.

Randal O’Toole: Right, because the other thing they did that – investing in transit and increasing densities to get people out of their cars failed. Instead what that did is it increased traffic congestion and cars pollute more in congested traffic than they do in free flowing traffic. So we ended up having more pollution thanks to the policy of trying to get people out of their cars. It failed miserably and yet we’re still pursuing that policy in many places supposedly to reduce greenhouse gases, to save energy and so on. It won’t work but we’re doing it anyway.

Tom Clougherty: So I think one of the interesting, maybe disturbing things about transportation policy is that you have an obvious problem in congestion, a problem which is very costly. You also have a solution that virtually every economist is going to agree on and that’s congestion pricing.

You also have on top of that a widespread perception that it’s politically impossible, that it will never happen. So therefore we have to go into a lot of these other things, which as you’ve pointed out may not be effective.

Do you see any future for congestion pricing? Could you maybe elaborate on that principle a little bit?

Randal O’Toole: Well, there are two things that are going to happen in the next 10 years. First of all, a lot of cars are going to become self-driving cars and that’s going to be a very rapid transformation because starting in about 2020, you will be able to buy a car that will be able to drive itself on the vast majority of American streets and roads without your input at all.

Pretty soon you will be able to drive a car – buy a car that will drive itself everywhere and they won’t even have steering wheels. Well, a lot of congestion happens because of slow human reflexes and as soon as we get self-driving cars which have much faster reflexes, the capacity of roads is going to increase tremendously. It’s typical that an urban freeway lane can move about 2000 vehicles an hour at speed.

With self-driving cars, we will be able to increase that to 6000 or more vehicles an hour. So that’s going to take care a lot of the congestion problem right there. The other parallel development is that we’re moving away from gas guzzlers.

Cars that burn gas are burning less and less gas all the time and a lot of cars are not burning gasoline. That means that gas taxes which have paid for our roads have really paid for 80 percent of all the roads we’ve built and 100 percent of all the state highways that have been built in the country and interstate roads.

Those gas taxes aren’t going to be around anymore. So we’re going to have to find a new way of paying for roads. My home state of Oregon was the first state to have a gas tax to pay for roads in 1919 and today my home state of Oregon is experimenting with mileage-based user fees. It’s the first state to experiment with them and what they’ve done is they’ve asked people to volunteer to pay a mileage-based user fee rather than a gas tax and I was one of the first people to volunteer.

They opened up volunteers at midnight on July 1st and at 12:01, I sent in my application and they sent me a little device that I plug into my car and now it keeps track of how many miles I drive and if I leave the state, I don’t pay anything. In the state I pay a penny and a half per mile and they refund me all my gas taxes that I pay when I buy gas.

So the intention is to phase this in over time. So if you buy an electric car, you will have to get a mileage-based user fee device. If you buy a gasoline-powered car, you will be encouraged to do it and over time, we will transition from all gasoline or all gas taxes to all mileage-based user fees.

Well, with mileage-based user fees, it will be real, real easy to make a congestion fee, to make it a variable fee. Presumably the device you plug into your car when you say I want to go to work, you will tell your car take me on this – to this address. The car will say, well, here are three different routes. If you go this way, you’re going to have to pay this fee. If you go this way, you will have to pay this fee and it will take you five minutes longer. If you go this way, you will have to pay a lower fee and it will take you 10 minutes longer or whatever. You will have a choice of which route, which fee you pay and you will make that choice and that will encourage people to avoid congested routes and eventually solve that $200 billion congestion problem.

Trevor Burrus: This is interesting because you see all these technologies which weren’t even thought about a few years ago, whether it’s the device to measure how much your car is driving or a driverless car.

It kind of reminds me – we’re talking about urban planners and who these people are and were and to sort of – whether or not any urban planners in 1980 thought about driverless cars or the possibility of having something to measure how much you’re driving and that – and they probably did and so …

Randal O’Toole: Well, the real question is are any urban planners in 2016 thinking about …

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, so that’s a better – at the Car History Museum, I know you at one point were in Denver for the light rail fight. In the car museum, they have a Denver urban plan from 1955 or something like that. It’s a 50-year urban plan. So this was what Denver looked like in 2005, which is just ludicrous. I mean it seems absolutely ludicrous.

Tom Clougherty: You mean they didn’t get it right?


Randal O’Toole: In 1950, nobody had ever taken a commercial jet airline flight. Nobody had ever direct dialed a long distance phone call. To make a long distance call, you had to call the operator and have them dial it for you. Of course almost nobody had ever programmed a computer. There was certainly no internet. Nobody could predict in 1950 what was going to happen in 2000.

Well today we can see driverless cars on the horizon but nobody can predict what is going to happen. Is everybody going to use an Uber-like car or are we going to own our own cars? Is it going to make people drive more because more people are going to be driving? Because you can be nine years old and drive a driverless car. I can put my dogs in the car and send them to the vet. I don’t need to go with them.

Trevor Burrus: That’s going to be a service. It could be like Bark Car and they just put them in there and it drives them to the vet, yeah.

Randal O’Toole: Or is it going to lead to less driving because everybody is going to be not owning a car but Uber-ing their car? The thing about that is when – if you own a car, when you say I’m going to go to the store now, you figure I’m going to pay the marginal cost to driving, the cost of gasoline. But if you’re renting a car, you have to pay the average cost which is a much higher per mile cost. So that’s going to change the calculus. Those people who decide not to own a car will probably travel less themselves than they would have traveled if they had owned a car because of that.

So is it going to lead to more or less driving? Nobody knows the answers to these questions. Urban planners, they know they don’t know the answers to these questions. So their solution is to ignore the problem, to ignore the issue, design for the past because they know the past. So they design for streetcars. They design for light rail because those are the past forms of travel. They know how people lived when those were the forms of travel that people used.

So they designed cities to be streetcar cities. That’s really the urban planning fad today is to design cities to be like they were in the 1920s when the people who got around not on foot took streetcars.

Of course there were still a lot of people who got around on foot because they couldn’t afford the streetcars and that of course is going to be a complete failure. It’s not going to work. It’s going to impose huge costs on those cities because they’re going to be designing for the wrong thing. It’s going to put a huge cost on the people in those cities but they’re doing it anyway because that’s the urban planning fad.

Trevor Burrus: So they’re thinking of sort of high density urban development with a lot of public transportation like streetcars and light rail and things like this, which is odd but it kind of makes you wonder if the entire concept of urban planning is just kind of silly. Are you kind of saying that?

Randal O’Toole: It doesn’t make me wonder that. It’s not kind of saying. Urban planning is a profession that doesn’t deserve to exist. That’s why I call myself the antiplanner and I have a blog called The Antiplanner. Look up “antiplanner” and I’m the first thing on the list. I write about this every day.

Urban planning always fails. They can’t predict the future. So instead of predicting it, they try to envision it and they envision a past that they understand. Then they try to impose that on the future by passing all kinds of regulations and all kinds of laws.

Trevor Burrus: As I went to – Tom being British, a town called Milton Keynes in – or Keynes I think is how they say it.

Tom Clougherty: Milton Keynes. It’s a must-see.

Trevor Burrus: In England, which is one of these post-war, fully-planned towns. I mean down to – especially in England. They were really big on this. Have urban planners become less hubristic? I mean in England, they were just planning entire towns, entire blocks, trying to figure out everything that people wanted. Have they become less hubristic and a little bit more respectful of human freedom or are they just as planning as ever?

Randal O’Toole: Absolutely not. They have not become less hubristic and a lot of places – a lot of private developers have built what are called “master plan communities”. The private developers did the planning and they were planning for the market. They were trying to figure out what do people want to live in and will build them a community like they want to live in.

They figure out, well, they want to be somewhat close to stores. So they have to have as many – enough people in their community to convince a supermarket to open up a store, to come into Costco or something like that, to open up a store. They like to be near some nice restaurants. But they also like to have a yard. They also like to have wide streets to drive on.

So they plan for what people want. The urban planners that I’m talking about are government planners and they plan for what they think people should have. They plan for what they think people should want, not what they do want. They think people should want to live in higher densities, that they should want to get around on transit, rather than driving, and so that’s what they planned for even though nationwide only about two percent of travel is by – well, one percent of travel and about two percent of commuting is by mass transit. It’s insignificant outside of New York City, Washington and about four other urban areas. Transit is irrelevant really.

Tom Clougherty: Yeah. I mean it’s interesting that you’re talking a lot about how contemporary urban planning is certainly anti-car, anti-automobility and yet I wonder whether the darkest era of urban planning was excessively pro-car. If you think of a lot of post-war development, the interstate highway system often driving major roads through established neighborhoods. Really trying to change people’s lives and the whole way they lived in the opposite direction of what they’re trying to do now. Is what we have now in urban planning almost a reaction to some of the mistakes of the past?

Randal O’Toole: No. I think what you have to – what’s consistent about urban planning is that it’s pro-middle class and anti-working class, anti-low income people. They call working class neighborhoods slums. This has been the trend for 125 years. Working class neighborhoods are slums. So we have to clear out those slums as if – if we move the people out so that we don’t have to look at them, they don’t exist anymore.

Urban renewal in the 1950s was called by some “negro removal” because a million people were displaced by the urban renewal movement and most of them were Blacks, so 80 percent of them were Blacks.

They had to move from places that they could afford to places that were less affordable because they weren’t slums anymore. So the problem that urban – that cities had in the 1940s and 50s that they saw they had is that the middle class people had moved to the suburbs and the people who were left were – had lower incomes and they said, OK, these are slums. We have to get them out of here. You get the middle class people back into the cities and they looked at the interstates as a way of doing it.

The original interstate highway system as planned by the transportation engineers was going to bypass all the cities, was not going to enter the cities. They brought this proposal before congress and the cities went to congress and said, “No, we want our share of the interstate money.”

So they rewrote the system. They added 10 percent more miles all of which were in the inner cities and came back to congress in ’56 and congress passed it with the endorsement of the urban mayors because the mayors wanted to use interstate highways as a vehicle for slum clearance.

They were to clear out the slums that the highways were built on. They would clear out the neighborhoods around those highways with eminent domain. That was all approved by the Supreme Court in the famous 1952 case here in Washington DC. Yeah.

And forced the people out and then build nice middle class neighborhoods. Today it’s the same thing. The whole complaint about urban sprawl is not a complaint about wealthy people moving in suburbs. Wealthy people started moving to the suburbs in the 1830s and nobody complained about urban sprawl then.

Middle class people started moving to the suburbs in the 1890s and nobody complained about it then. We’ve had suburban sprawl for almost 200 years.

It was only when middle class people or simply when working class people started moving to the suburbs in the 1920s because they were able to buy Henry Ford’s affordable cars that people started complaining about urban sprawl.

The early complaints about urban sprawl were very class-oriented. You have these inelegant people out there in all stages of dress playing this ridiculous music on their Victor-Victrolaphones and dancing wildly and gesticulating and eating weird food.

Trevor Burrus: Showing their ankles.

Randal O’Toole: Doing all kinds of things that were horrible and it was very class-oriented and their prescription – I’m reading to you from a book called the Town and Country Plan. It was written by a British author and the prescription was we will pen all those people up in high-rises in the cities and in 1947, Britain passed – the parliament passed a Town and Country Planning Act that put greenbelts around the cities for bidding development and then put high-rises in the cities that people lived in for a few years but was really only acceptable because a lot of housing had been palmed out. But as soon as people lived in it for more than 10 years, they realized we don’t want to live like this. These are awful places to live in. So they revolted but …

Trevor Burrus: This racial class part of the story seems to be – I mean it’s – you cannot separate it from the whole history of urban planning. It’s about class and race and we have red lining. We have zoning. We have all these different things and it’s about the powerful who happen to be politically powerful in a given time trying to impose their view upon their fellow citizens and what – the kind of city that they would like to live in which may not include you and your kind at least in my neighborhood.

Randal O’Toole: Well, I have a friend in California named Joseph Perkins who’s a black radio talk show host and he says that he looks at urban planning smart growth as the new Jim Crow. He says the Sierra Club is the new KKK because they’re promoting these ideas and he goes to some place like Marin County, California which is just north of San Francisco and has very strict urban growth boundaries and low density zoning and he says he goes there and they – he goes to these hearings and people are saying, “We want to keep those people out.”

He said, “Well those people are people like me.” But it isn’t just people of color. It’s a class thing. They want to keep the working class out. We don’t like to talk about class in this country much but there definitely is a class structure.

You look at the progressives. They say, “Well, we care about the working class.” Well you might care about the working class but you don’t like their values. They play country Western music which you hate. They drive around in big pick-ups.

Trevor Burrus: They drink soda.

Randal O’Toole: Yeah, they drink soda.

Trevor Burrus: They smoke cigarettes.

Randal O’Toole: They smoke cigarettes. They drink beer, not wine.

Trevor Burrus: Budweiser …

Randal O’Toole: And they support Donald Trump and they oppose abortion and they do all the things that – you say you care about them and yet your actual attitude is one of seething contempt.

Really zoning has always been about keeping working class people out of middle class neighborhoods and the whole planning today is about OK, we’re going to design transportation systems for the working class that will take them to work so that they can serve us and then take them home to places different from where we live and they can live a nice lifestyle in their high density apartment and walk down the stairs and go shopping so they don’t have to shop in the same stores that we drive to. It sounds very idyllic if you …

Trevor Burrus: Can afford it.

Randal O’Toole: No. If you can afford to not live that way, if you’re a middle class person. But it’s not idyllic for the working class.

Trevor Burrus: So let’s talk about some of these public transportation issues because I have this great classic Onion article because it’s tied in with all these ideas that public transportation is something that – well, the headline is Report: 98 Percent Of US Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others and we’ve had a spate of light rail, we’ve had streetcars and all these things have come up which it seems like the people who make them are not really – they’re not using them. I expected them to probably not use them. They think other people should be using them. That seems to be a big story of public transportation.

Randal O’Toole: Well, there’s a recent story that – unfortunately it wasn’t in the Onion but it was an authentic story in the Los Angeles Times that said despite the fact that we’re spending billions of dollars on transit, transit ridership is declining and that’s true here in Washington DC as well. Transit ridership seems to have peaked about just before the financial crash and it’s not really recovering since the financial crash.

Really transit has been on a downhill since 1960 or 1950, the end of World War Two. What we’re seeing is people plowing more and more money into it and productivity is going down. The number of transit riders carried per transit worker is steadily declining.

The amount of money we spend to get one person out of their car has gone from a dollar in 1960 to $25 or more today just to get one person out of their car for one trip. We build transit lines that are so expensive that it would have been cheaper to give every single daily round trip rider on that transit line a new Toyota Prius every single year for the rest of their lives than to keep running that …

Trevor Burrus: I’m laughing and crying at the same time.

Randal O’Toole: And there are a lot of forces at work here. It started out in the 1970s. Congress had given cities the incentive to take over private transit. In 1965, almost all transit in America was private. By 1975, it was almost all public. Congress had said to cities you take over transit. We will pay for your new buses. We will pay for your capital costs. You just have to pay the operating costs.

So cities took them over and then in 1973, congress said, “Oh by the way, if you have an interstate freeway that’s planned in your city and you decide to cancel it, you can take the capital cost of that freeway and use it for transit capital investments.” Well, cities thought that was great except for buses are so cheap that they couldn’t afford to operate all the buses that you could buy for the cost of an interstate freeway.

So then the mayor of Portland came up with an idea. Let’s build a light rail line. That’s really, really expensive. That will absorb all the costs of the freeway even though it’s only going to carry about a tenth of as many people as that freeway. It will absorb all that cost and it won’t cost that much more to operate than a bus. So we will be able to use that money and I won’t be accused of costing the region jobs because we’re not building that freeway because we’re building the light rail instead.

Well, what happened was that created – that transformed the transportation and construction industry. Almost everybody in the industry who was building roads could easily transform into building light rail. So they didn’t care whether they were building roads or rail or what. They just wanted to build something and if people wanted to build rail, that was fine with them and they became a lobby for rail. People have talked about the highway lobby. Today the rail construction lobby in Washington DC is ten times richer than the highway lobby in Washington.

Trevor Burrus: Do any of these light rails pay for themselves?

Randal O’Toole: No. First of all, no transit – public transit pays for itself simply because it doesn’t have to because they’re all drawing on government money. There are a few transit systems in this country that do pay for themselves because they’re entirely private. They don’t get any subsidies. One is the Atlantic City Jitney. One is the New York Waterway. It’s a ferry system in New York City between New Jersey and Manhattan.

One is the publico, a jitney system in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Actually carries more people than the public transit system that was subsidized and encouraged more passenger miles. There are private transit systems in some cities that don’t regulate private transit operations that compete against public transit and do so very effectively. Most cities however made it illegal to compete against the public transit agency so they can just raise their costs with impunity and charge at the taxpayers. Transit cost them – transit on average, four times as much to move a person one mile as it does to drive a car that mile. Rail transit is far, far more expensive than bus transit and …

Trevor Burrus: I mean a bunch of politicians choosing a bunch of options that are super expensive and bad at their job. I mean this wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. But it’s so bad. You have to wonder like why this is even – I mean light rail. When I’m home in Denver, I see the light rail cruise by and let’s say there are about seven people on it and I wonder how much it costs to just take these seven people, this length of – why are they doing that? I mean it’s just crazy ….

Randal O’Toole: Well, they say there are several forces at work. One is that we’ve created a lobby for it and others, thanks to that lobby, congress passed a law that created a $2 billion annual fund to fund local rail projects. It’s called the New Starts Fund and there’s no limit as to how much you can ask for from this. If you want highway money, you get an amount that depends on the population of your state, the land area of your state, the road miles, things that are beyond your control.

But if you want money from this New Starts Fund, the way to get more money is to build a more expensive project. So the average cost of light rail, the first light rail line in America was built without federal funds in San Diego and it cost us $10 million a mile after adjusting for inflation to today’s dollars.

Today, the average light rail line is costing $200 million a mile and there are cities that are planning and building light rail lines that are costing over $600 million a mile.

So the race has been to come up with the most expensive transit project you can get because that way you get the most federal dollars. That’s a rather perverse incentive. So we’ve got streetcars. The first streetcar project, streetcars are supposed to be a cheap form of light rail. They started out at $20 million a mile which is more expensive than the first light rail project but cheap compared to light rail today.

Now Mayor de Blasio of New York has proposed a streetcar and connecting Brooklyn and Queens. It’s going to cost over $150 million a mile. So we’ve got these enormously expensive projects that aren’t going to carry very many people and as I say, it would have been cheaper to just give the passengers Toyota Priuses and would have been better for the environment to do that as well.

Trevor Burrus: When does public transportation make sense then?

Randal O’Toole: Public transportation I think can make sense in Manhattan because it’s so dense. It has 2 million jobs in 7 square miles which is far denser than anywhere else. The average density of jobs in most downtowns is a tiny fraction of that.

You could not – even driverless cars could not bring two million people into Manhattan every morning and take them out every evening. So transit is an essential must there. Even there, transit today only pays half its operating costs and none of it is capital or maintenance cost. I think if you privatized it and got rid of a lot of the government bureaucracy and waste and requirements, that you could probably turn the Manhattan New York Subway System into a for profit operation as it used to be many years ago. It was built privately of course.

Outside of Manhattan, I don’t think transit has a future because self-driving cars are going to replace people that can’t drive today or don’t want to drive. We will be able to get a self-driving car. The next densest downtown area is Chicago. It has 500,000 jobs and today half of them drive. The other half take transit but self-driving cars will be able to double the capacity of the roads. So people will be able to get to those jobs without any problem.

Also if you stop subsidizing these downtowns by building these and supporting these ridiculously expensive rail systems, you will see a diaspora of jobs from downtown. It used to be most jobs are downtown. Now about 7.5 percent of all American jobs are in downtown areas. We don’t need to have that kind of concentration at all.

Even Manhattan, if you go to the West Coast, you will find finance areas that do the same kinds of financial work as Manhattan and they’re in low density areas, low rise developments. They don’t need high rises.

Tom Clougherty: Randal, I want to press you on something. In a sense, it’s your optimism about the future in this regard because you’ve said in 10 years we will have self-driving cars. This is going to deal with a lot of our problems. We will have mileage-based user fees. This will deal with some more of our problems. But I’ve also heard driverless cars described as the idea that’s always 10 years away and it’s always going to be.

Of course I appreciate that technologically speaking, we’re very close. In fact we might be just about there already. But do you see any big road blocks to driverless cars? Can they be easily overcome or could we be sitting here in 10 years’ time kind of having the same conversation?

Randal O’Toole: The only potential road block to driverless cars is government and insurance liability, people say that’s a problem. But it turns out it’s not a problem. The insurance companies have figured out how to deal with that. They won’t sell insurance to you. They will sell it to the manufacturer of your automobile or the software maker.

So when you buy the software for your driverless car, that will include insurance. Google has said, “We’re not worried about liability problems because we have faith in our software. Our software records everything all the time. So if we do have an accident, we will be able to quickly figure out who’s at fault. If it’s our fault, we will fix it. We will pay the liability and we will fix the software and make sure we never have an accident like that again.”

Volvo has said much the same thing. So liability is not a problem. The only problem is government and here’s a scenario that I’m afraid is going to happen.

There are two modes of thought about driverless vehicles, self-driving vehicles. One is that you put all the intelligence in the car. You give the car excellent maps of everything that it might encounter and you give the car sensors to sense motor vehicles, pedestrians and other movable objects around. So the car knows where it can go and knows where it needs to avoid.

You give the car a map of all potential parking places so that you can tell the car to go park itself and so on and so forth. And with everything on board the car, you don’t need to change the infrastructure at all. You can all use today’s streets. You can use today’s stop signs and traffic signals and other signage and eventually a lot of those things will be able to fade away as driverless cars take over.

The other mode of thought is that driverless cars will work best if they have infrastructure, if they have a system of communicating with the infrastructures, so that instead of seeing a red light, the traffic signals send them a radio signal saying to stop. Instead of looking at people’s cell phones – when you have a cell phone and you’re looking at traffic patterns, you’re getting information from other people’s cell phones.

That’s a person to person communication via Google or TomTom or whoever is the map maker. They’re getting information from other people who are using that technology and then sending it to you. Instead of having that happen, how the infrastructure keep track of whether it’s congestion and then the infrastructure will tell you, “Oh, there’s a traffic accident up ahead,” and tell your car to take a different route or something like that.

That’s called “vehicle to infrastructure technology”. Now President Obama just announced that it’s part of his budget for 2017. He wants to spend $3 billion on self-driving cars and a lot of people cheered and said, “Yay, we’re going to have self-driving cars quicker.” But no, he wants to spend it on the infrastructure that is not necessary and will be obsolete very quickly because if you spend billions of dollars putting in infrastructure, how easy is it going to be to change that infrastructure? Whereas if somebody buys a car and the technology changes, it’s just a software upgrade to your car.

So it’s easy to change it when it’s distributed. It’s hard to change when you’ve got this infrastructure. So the danger is that not only will government spend a few billion dollars putting this infrastructure on a few streets. Then they will mandate that you can only run a car in self-driving mode if the car is communicating with that infrastructure. That’s what I’m afraid of. That is what will be the obstacle to self-driving cars because it will take forever for all the four million miles of roads in America to get that infrastructure.

Trevor Burrus: Well then it seems like you also have the possibility of limiting the market for suppliers or producers of software or driverless cars because it might be what will give the contract to one company who’s going to interface with the infrastructure in the roads as opposed to letting people produce cars that can do the same thing in many different ways. So that would be another problem.

Randal O’Toole: Well, that’s really the source of this problem is that there’s a lot of companies that like Google that are investing in technologies that are putting all the intelligence in the car but then there’s a lot of other companies that are investing in technologies that require the infrastructure.

Trevor Burrus: And that’s the contract that you give away.

Randal O’Toole: Yeah. There are other ones who are lobbying in Washington to see that infrastructure type is mandated, to see at the very least what Obama wants to do is a mandate that your new car be capable of communicating with that infrastructure. Not just use it but that it be capable of using it.

Trevor Burrus: Whoever gets that contract is going to get a massive …

Randal O’Toole: Right, right.

Trevor Burrus: It would be like a defense contractor. It would be a huge amount of money.

Randal O’Toole: And if we don’t mandate that, then what we’re going to see is a lot of different schools of thought out there. We’ve got the Google car. We’ve got Volkswagen. We’ve got Volvo. We’ve got Ford. We’ve got a bunch of different cars trying slightly different technologies. There’s a 26-year-old kid in California who was the first person – when he was 17 years old, he was the first person to jailbreak an iPhone worldwide and now he has developed his driverless car that learns from other auto drivers. It’s a learning – it’s an artificially intelligent car. So he doesn’t have to write millions of lines of code to say OK, when you come to an intersection, you have to do such and such before you turn. When you see a bicycle, you have to do such and such to avoid it.

He just writes – he wrote 2000 lines of code and from then on, the car just learns and that’s a different school of technology. He thinks he will be able to turn anybody’s modern car, not an old car but a car that’s being made today with electronic steering and electronic breaking and stuff like that into a driverless car for less than $1000. So once this technology is introduced provided government doesn’t get in the way, you will see rapid retro fitting of old cars whether it’s $1000 or $2000 or $500. You will still see a rapid retro fitting. So you will see a rapid introduction of this technology to a large number of vehicles.

As I said, the danger is that government gets in the way and tries to have a uniform technology that communicates with infrastructure that will create two hazards. One is that we don’t install the infrastructure and that whatever infrastructure we do install becomes obsolete. Second, that the uniform technology which must communicate will be susceptible to hacks whereas if your car is …

Trevor Burrus: Self-contained.

Randal O’Toole: Self-contained, it doesn’t have to communicate with anything. It’s going to be very difficult to hack because there’s nobody sending a signal to it except for the GPS and that it’s very difficult to hack the GPS satellites.

Trevor Burrus: It seems like we’re on the cusp of a possibly profound change in human life that could be – well, the order of the car which we …

Randal O’Toole: On the order of the mass produced car.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

Randal O’Toole: The initial car did nothing. I mean 1913, two percent of American families or less had a car. By 1925, over half of American families had a car thanks to the mass-produced …

Trevor Burrus: Well, this changed with driverless cars. We could be – this is like a moment in time where we can start trying to learn the lessons that we’ve talked about today that we can have the government come in, try and plan it out and try to make sure all this works and what we’re going to get is probably expensive, not very useful, impossibly prone to failure if we do this infrastructure thing or we can let human freedom do this and then we can look back and say this is the – because the possibility seemed pretty endless of what driverless cars – how they can change our lives and they make us better environmentally and a bunch of things. They can change a lot of things in our lives.

Randal O’Toole: Absolutely. It will transform our lives. It will transform the calculus of travel. Most people have a travel budget that’s not just a dollar budget but a time budget. We’re only willing to spend so many hours a week traveling. Obviously you can’t travel 24 hours a day. But if – while you’re traveling, you can work, if while you’re traveling you can entertain yourself, if you can play with your kids, if you can teach your dog tricks while you’re traveling, well then suddenly we’re going to travel a lot more. It’s just going to be – half of Americans say that what constrains them is time. What constrains their travel is time, not money.

Now what made the model T Ford successful was that it could go anywhere there was a road or a street and we had a primitive but widespread road structure and street structure at the time. Every city had lots of streets. They weren’t all paved. But they went everywhere in the city and then there were a lot of interstate roads as well or intercity roads.

The model T could use all of those and so I say that to judge whether a new technology is going to work, the question is, “Is it going to be able to use the existing infrastructure?” If it requires a lot new infrastructure, it’s not going to work. That’s why high speed rail is not going to work. It’s really expensive and it requires a lot new infrastructure.

That’s why streetcars and light rail and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications aren’t going to work because they require a lot of expensive infrastructure. It’s not only expensive to build. It’s expensive to maintain. It’s expensive to keep it up-to-date whereas if we can use the existing infrastructure, our four million miles of roads and streets that we already have without any changes to them, self-driving cars can totally transform how we use that, make it a lot more effective, faster, cheaper, safer and more convenient than the transportation system we have today. I like to say transportation works best when it’s “sexy”: speed, economy, convenience and safety, S-E-C-S, works best with transportation.

Trevor Burrus: And stop having these plans imposed upon us from people who think we should be living our lives in a different way.

Randal O’Toole: People who wish that they lived in 1920 in Paris and one that can create all of our cities to look like 1920 Paris or 1950 Greenwich Village is really the model for urban planners today.

Trevor Burrus: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at