In 1956, US taxpayers gave General Motors, Ford, and the American car industry one of the world’s most expensive gifts: A $26 billion interstate highway system (eventually costing $129 billion) and a transportation policy designed around the car. It’s a gift that has kept on giving, says Peter Norton, an associate professor at the University of Virginia. “The effort served a utopian vision of cities in which anyone could drive anywhere, anytime, and park at the destination,” he writes. “It destroyed much of the urban America it was meant to serve.”
Today, the bulk of America’s transportation expenditures go to fueling, parking, and moving our cars around. That former sense of freedom has proved to be a prison for commuters trying to get to and from their jobs. Cities once had walkable layouts, mixed zoning, and efficient mass transit. Public transit, which now represents just 1% of passenger miles in the US, is starved for funds and inaccessible for many. Every working day, the average American driver spends (pdf) almost an hour going between work and home, up 20% since 1980, while spending $8,800 per vehicle per year, about one-fifth of their household budget.
Autonomous cars are America’s chance for a transportation “do-over.” We have two paths in front of us—utopian or dystopian. Which it will be is a matter of policy as much as technology or economics. We’ve inherited a lot of assumptions from the 20th century. Americans love to drive. Americans hate transit. People want to live in the suburbs. Americans chose the automobile long ago. But for many that’s a myth, argues Norton.