A family member just sent me an article titled “MIT tackles urban gridlock with foldable car idea“. Apparently, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a compact two-seater (about the size of a golf cart) capable of finding other cars like itself to stack up with, folding in half, and parking itself. This, they suggest, would relieve automotive congestion and allow more space in cities for parks and walkways.
I suspect that this is nonsense.
It is known among traffic researchers that the addition of new roads, and of lanes to existing roads, only increases traffic congestion. This seems like a paradox to most people. Any relief that a widened road provides is only temporary: it lasts until people figure out that there is a less-trafficked, more-convenient road to drive.
At any moment, there is a “traffic equilibrium” struck between people’s desire to drive to their locations on one hand, and their willingness to put up with the inconvenience of driving (be it speed, distance, or crowding) on the other. When driving conditions are made easier — that is, faster because of decreased crowding — it allows the fulfillment of people’s “latent demand” for driving. Their behavior changes to meet this new capacity: they drive to more destinations and choose to live farther away from those destinations. In time, the new road capacity is filled. As the authors of Suburban Nation write,
The most irksome aspect of this situation is that these road-builders are never proved wrong; in fact, they are always proved right: “You see,” they say, “I told you that traffic was coming.”
While they haven’t widened the roads, these MIT scientists have done two things to increase traffic capacity: they’ve made the cars smaller (apparently, roughly the size of a golf cart), which will allow more of them on the road at once, and they’ve made it easier to find parking. If this folding, nesting, compact car catches on, I predict that the results will be similar to those of increasing our road-space: more people will find it convenient to drive, so people will live still farther away from town and make more trips by car.
As someone who advocates the re-establishment of downtown as Fairbanks’s center of commerce and culture, I am of two minds about the possibility of more traffic heading here. Naturally, I want more people coming downtown for their shopping and socializing. But I also think that making it easier for Fairbanksans to drive will only disperse us farther, and that is bad for neighborhoods, public spaces, and civic life.
I appreciate that the nice folks at MIT want to reduce urban traffic congestion and to create a less eco-hazardous car. But I wish they’d focus their efforts on technologies that can bring people closer together and improve the civic life of cities. I suspect that the tools for that are not high-tech, but have been with us for centuries.