How I learned to stop hating micromobility

dockless bike

… and start loving smart streets

Sidewalks are under attack! Or, maybe mobility options are proliferating faster than cities are changing streets to accommodate them.

Bikes, e-scooters, electric unicycles, hoverboards, and all the other micromobility vehicles now zooming down sidewalks don’t belong there. Even in cities that allow them to share space with pedestrians, they shouldn’t. Injuries to pedestrians and class-action lawsuits over sidewalk access serve as evidence that this is a real problem.

Ironically, walking is coming under threat just as Americans are starting to see its value. Property values are rising in cities and neighborhoods where it’s possible to work, shop, and be entertained without getting in a car. Many Americans, not just millennials, are flocking to these areas after decades of suburbanization and the decline of city centers. Now, new modes of transportation are starting to invade the urban sidewalks that make these areas walkable.

Until recently, who belonged where in a streetscape was mostly a settled matter, for better or worse. The last time the division of street use was in play to this degree was nearly a century ago, right before automotive interests established cars as the primary users of roads and relegated pedestrians to sidewalks and crosswalks. Cyclists were left to fend for themselves.

How should pedestrians negotiate the changes in street use this time around? Are we in danger of being pushed aside once again? As a daily pedestrian and transit rider in San Francisco, I’ve thought about this question for months. In that time, my feelings have shifted from outrage to understanding – within limits.

The part where I whine

San Francisco is both the birthplace of many of the new modes of transportation and a battleground over how to deal with them. This didn’t happen out of the blue. I’ve observed some degree of contention over sidewalk space as a pedestrian here for decades. Even before the first wave of new mobility options arrived, in the form of docked rental bikes, I was perturbed by cyclists on their own bikes speeding down sidewalks and warning me to get out of the way. It was especially galling when there was a bike lane 10 feet away on the street.

With bikes that could be rented on the street through an app, the problem got a little worse. There were more inexperienced riders who didn’t know they weren’t allowed on sidewalks. When dockless scooters arrived last year, the tension went up a notch or three. Many riders seemed to be hopping on one for the first time without a clue about how or where to ride them, and often they left the scooters in the middle of the sidewalk, creating a hazard for some and an obstacle for all.

Pretty soon, I started to wonder where all this was going. If the number of wheeled vehicles on the city’s sidewalks kept growing at the current rate, how long would it be before they effectively outnumbered pedestrians? Due to their speed, size, and risk, bicycles and powered vehicles might effectively take over some stretches of sidewalk long before they became the numerical majority. Police might start forcing them off the sidewalk, but they didn’t appear to be doing it yet. When would it be too late?

The part where I learn some history

While this may sound absurd, there is some precedent for it. For the first few decades after automobiles debuted, city streets remained shared public thoroughfares where people had the right to walk, cross, stop and chat, and even play anywhere they pleased. Horses, wagons, and streetcars coexisted with pedestrians, and cars had to accommodate those existing street users by going slowly and being prepared to yield at any time. But what set the automobile apart was its potential speed, and starting in the mid-1920s, the car industry and auto clubs set out to turn the street into a place where cars could move freely and quickly. Lobbying, advertising, and other tactics rapidly changed the way Americans understood their public streets, as Peter D. Norton recounted in his recent book, “Fighting Traffic.” The purpose of road design and regulation became maximizing automotive traffic flow. Walking anywhere other than a sidewalk or a crosswalk became jaywalking, and no real accommodation was made for cyclists, the other major users of the street.

In the new age of micromobility, would a growing number of intimidating encounters lead everyone without wheels to give up on walking and hail an Uber instead? Would richly funded scooter and bike rental companies — with some assistance from ride-hailing giants that were starting to acquire them – eventually throw their weight behind laws that made pedestrians’ defeat official and assigned sidewalks to wheeled vehicles?

It started to look as if pedestrians’ rights to the sidewalk had to be defended vigorously and immediately, or the war would be lost in a matter of years.

The part where I change my mind

But then a couple of things happened: I began to learn more about what cyclists and other riders face when trying to share the road. And I started paying more attention to what sharing sidewalks actually looks like, day in and day out.

While bikes usually have the same rights on the road as cars, legally, their real freedom to use the street is much more limited. Urban cycling is dangerous. In 2017, 783 cyclists died in crashes in the U.S. In urban areas, the number of cyclist fatalities has risen 13 percent since 2008. Bike lanes appear to provide a safe path, but if you watch closely or listen to cyclists’ stories, it turns out they often don’t – unless there are poles, curbs, or traffic islands to separate them from traffic. Traffic-calming features such as sidewalk bulb-outs and narrower lanes can also help to make these lanes safe, as former New York City Traffic Commissioner Samuel Schwartz described in his book, “Street Smart.” In San Francisco, most bike lanes are just painted on, with no other modifications to the street. They end up blocked by double-parked cars, ride-hailing pickups and dropoffs, and inattentive drivers opening their doors.

Not being a cyclist, I hadn’t realized this. But given the dangers that cyclists face on the streets, even where a lane painted on the asphalt appears to protect them, it’s understandable that some use sidewalks instead.

Here’s the other ground truth: Not every sidewalk scofflaw breaks the rules in the same way.

A few ride aggressively, demanding space even in bustling crowds of pedestrians. Others are oblivious, uncertain, or uncaring enough to disrupt foot traffic without even noticing. But micromobility vehicles show up every day, on sidewalks all over the city, and in most cases you wouldn’t even notice them unless you paid attention as closely as I do. They aren’t noticeable because they’re not getting in anyone’s way. The various sidewalk users find their way around each other.

A way forward

Pedestrians in cities where micromobility is booming are annoyed. Occasionally, they’re at risk. People with disabilities are sometimes prevented from getting around. It’s a problem, and sidewalk laws should be enforced. But an all-out war on micromobility by pedestrians isn’t the answer – at least, not yet.

By the same token, those who promote these vehicles at the expense of everything else are shortsighted. When challenged on the dangers of their favored device, they argue simply that cars are more dangerous. At its worst, this lesser-evil argument is used to dismiss objections to any business model or rider behavior. This turns mobility into a zero-sum game, a simplistic world of cars versus everything else. And that’s where the car-centric establishment wants the conversation to stay.

Ignoring the need to protect all street users pits pedestrians and micromobility riders against each other when we should be allies, acknowledging our differences and working to expand alternative street space.

No street is truly walkable unless it’s also bike-able, and scooter-able, and hoverboard-able. Walkers and riders need to find common ground – and then claim more ground.

Love driving? Automation will help, not take over

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Driver assistance systems are already mainstream and preventing crashes. Driverless cars? Not so much.

While startups conjure futuristic visions of self-driving cars saving lives and getting us everywhere faster, current technologies that draw far less attention are already cutting down on collisions and injuries.

If we’re headed toward much safer roads, then features that make cars easier for humans to drive may get us there long before vehicles that drive themselves. Advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) technology is already mainstream and making a difference, while autonomous vehicles (AVs) are barely past the starting line. Meanwhile, ADAS has an advantage self-driving cars can’t match: Humans want to drive.

A recent report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave a glimpse of how much ADAS might reduce the toll of crashes if it became more common. IIHS studied collision claims involving cars with and without some popular ADAS features.

Cutting crashes by more than half

The highlights: Forward collision warning, which warns drivers their car is about to hit something in front, reduced the number of rear-ending incidents with injuries by 20 percent. Paired with autobrake, which slows or stops a car by itself, it reduced those crashes by 56 percent.

Rear automatic braking eliminated 78 percent of crashes that occur while backing up. Lane departure warning reduced single-vehicle, sideswipe, and head-on crashes with injuries by 21 percent. Blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert systems, and rearview cameras also led to double-digit reductions in crashes.

The IIHS study didn’t even look at some other advanced features, such as lane-keeping assist, which can nudge a drifting car back into its lane; adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from the car ahead; or automatic sign detection, which can see stop signs and other markers and display alerts on the dash. A survey by Consumer Reports found similar results for several ADAS features.

Like fully autonomous vehicles, ADAS is intended to help eliminate the approximately 40,000 deaths and 4.5 million serious injuries caused by collisions each year in the U.S. There is overlap between these technologies, both of which use multiple sensors and automated control of throttle, brakes, and steering. But regulators and most of the auto industry are moving toward a consensus that vehicles should either help drivers or take over, not do something in between. So-called Level 3 automation, which lets the car take full control under some conditions but requires the driver to step in when the situation changes, is widely seen as inviting inattention until an emergency that the driver won’t be able to respond to in time. Development of true self-driving cars is now focused on Level 4 (fully automated trips in defined areas or conditions), and Level 5 (full automation everywhere).

AVs are bound to take a bite out of road fatalities eventually, as long as everything goes right in terms of technology development, regulation, and consumer behavior. Increasing use of public transit, and streetscape modifications such as protected bike lanes, will also help to reduce road deaths. But it’s likely that ADAS will contribute the lion’s share of safety gains. That’s partly because AVs have so far to go that they won’t be widely available for years, and partly because full automation won’t overturn a century of clear consumer preferences.

Driverless: A to-do list

Self-driving technology would have to overcome several huge obstacles to reach the ubiquitous use that backers imagine when they talk about an AV revolution. Their vision of a transformed road network, where risk is minimized (and speed and efficiency maximized) by an entire fleet of AVs in lockstep, would require vehicles that can navigate any road and a population that’s willing to hand over those roads to the robots. Here are a few things that would have to happen first.

  1. Regulators deem self-driving cars safe enough to hit the road without backup drivers. While this is beginning to happen in some places for testing purposes, full commercial approval is a long way off. In the U.S., it’s not even clear what roles federal, state, and local authorities should have in regulating AVs.
  2. The software that drives AVs can learn to handle a theoretically infinite range of exceptions, or “edge cases,” that might occur anywhere in the world. Every time a self-driving vehicle stops to figure out an unexpected situation like a construction area or erratic human driving, the smooth choreography of a street full of AVs would be disrupted and delayed. Getting over the hump of dealing with edge cases already seems to be proving harder than expected, based on reports about progress at companies like GM and Waymo. Some boosters had expected artificial intelligence to be obliterating those hurdles at an ever-quickening pace by now, and they’re not.
  3. All roads are repaired or upgraded to accommodate AVs, which in some cases are being designed to use cues like signs and lane markings. In the U.S., these markings are different from one jurisdiction to the next and in many cases aren’t maintained well enough to be easily understood.
  4. The automotive market is completely overhauled. Right now, the biggest names in AVs (wisely) plan to roll them out first through robotaxi services, which may eventually be embraced by the same consumers who use human-driven ride-hail cars. But a full-scale AV industry that could replace human-driven vehicles would need to sell itself to all consumers who use cars, a majority of whom currently buy and drive their own. It’s not at all clear how many of them would be willing to pay the huge premium for their own AV (a cost that will stay high unless big sales boost production volume) or give up car ownership for paying by the ride.

More than transportation

The auto industry grew up and still thrives on demand for driving. If its business were selling a way to get from Point A to Point B, every model with more than adequate horsepower would be gathering dust on the lot. Instead, performance keeps going up. Forty years ago, driving enthusiasts sought out and paid extra for sport sedans that could go 0-60 in 8 seconds. By 2015, that track time qualified models for a list of the 20 slowest accelerating cars in America. There are sizable segments of the market, including sports cars, fast luxury sedans, and high-end SUVs with hundreds of horsepower, that wouldn’t exist if all the owner could do was sit back and ride. These are the flagships of automotive brands and objects of aspiration for millions of consumers.

An appetite for owning and operating cars is a proven quantity in American culture. So why give up driving when your car will let you take the wheel and still keep you safe? That’s what ADAS represents. It will command growing investment from industry (dovetailing with AV development) and gradually expanding federal mandates like the 2018 law requiring backup cameras on all vehicles under 10,000 pounds.

For these reasons, the automotive mainstream is likely to evolve toward greater driver assitance rather than undergo a robotic revolution. AVs will have their place where driving is a significant business cost, such as in ride-hailing and delivery, and where consumers can’t drive themselves because of age or disability. For some minority of consumers, a self-driving car will be necessary or just too appealing not to buy. But for most Americans, automation will become the co-pilot we’ve needed all along.

The IIHS results show a potential that’s only begun to be realized. Tens of thousands of lives will be saved by technology that covers for our own faults rather than an overhaul of mobility that will never be complete.

CES shows automakers a future beyond hardware

Ford doesn’t just want to become a mobility company. It may have to.

Automakers at this week’s International CES laid out plans to branch out from selling cars to providing mobility as a service. They’re learning the right lesson from the tech industry that surrounds them in Las Vegas’s vast convention halls.

Ford’s announcement this week of a “partnership platform” to help delivery, ride-hailing, and other businesses use fleets of its self-driving cars is a good example of this trend.

The platform is a package of technologies that can be built into vehicles for carrying out services. For example, it includes communications protocols that ride-hailing company Lyft will use for requesting and dispatching self-driving Fords, and “experiential elements” like a voice that talks to customers when they pick up pizzas from self-driving Ford delivery trucks.

It’s all in testing, for now, but those trials are racing ahead. Along with the platform, Ford announced a new commercial partner — delivery startup Postmates — and the expansion of trials to another city this year. It’s already working with Lyft and Domino’s Pizza.

The new game in town

These aren’t just tests of new services or vehicles, but of a new business model: Ford won’t sell the fleets to anyone, but instead will charge commercial partners to use them. Its product will be mobility itself. That business will be a lifeline in the years to come, because unless the company can figure out how to sell a self-driving Mustang Shelby GT350 (where’s the fun in that?), its current core products will go the way of the Packard-Bell desktop PC. As in tech, the future is in software and services.

Ford isn’t alone. Other manufacturers are also lining up partners for their emerging self-driving fleets. At CES, Toyota announced deals with Uber, Amazon and Pizza Hut to test a customizable autonomous concept vehicle it calls the e-Palette. Pay-per-use services are part of an ambitious strategy by General Motors to make a profit on electric vehicles by 2021. GM’s self-driving subsidiary, Cruise, already has a partnership with Lyft (and maybe with Uber), and Chrysler parent company FCA is working with Alphabet’s Waymo business on a driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix.

Fleet vehicles have long been a solid but low-profile part of the car business. They’re the unglamorous workhorses sold or leased to rental agencies, contractors, and large and small businesses, with specialized modifications often done by third parties. Durability and customizability are key selling points. But the self-driving revolution will make fleets a much bigger part of automakers’ business and an important way for marques to differentiate themselves.

Ford’s ability to make its cars do things that have never been done before, like deliver a hot pizza and wish you a good night, or reliably pull up wherever you’re waiting for a ride, will give its fleet business a caché it never had before. That’s good, because in the age of self-driving cars, automakers are going to need caché wherever they can find it.

Like PCs, but sexy

Until now, car companies made money mostly by persuading consumers to buy things that rolled out of their factories on four wheels. In tech-industry parlance, they were in the hardware business. Aside from things like infotainment systems and telematics services, which are very recent additions to a more than century-old industry, they were selling the equivalent of PCs all running the same operating system. They made that sale, sometimes to the same customer every three years and to the same family for generations, because buyers cared how that functionally identical hardware looked, felt, sounded, and even smelled when they used it. They also cared, increasingly, how long it lasted and how much it cost them to operate. But every company’s hardware basically did the same thing. People just cared very, very much how it did that thing.

Autonomous cars change all that. When they go on sale, many consumers will still buy cars (if you spend three hours a day commuting in a vehicle, you may want to make that space your own), but no one’s going to buy a self-driving sports car. The main selling points, other than interiors, will be software and services. If it’s up to the car to figure out how to get you from Point A to Point B, you’ll want the one with the best maps and back-end AI. If you don’t have to do the driving, you’ll want the minivan with the most streaming services.

If Ford and its rivals don’t find customers like Lyft and Postmates and turn themselves into mobility companies, they may suffer the fate of the hardware companies in the tech industry. What turned Gateway and Compaq from big brands into low-margin sidelines of bigger companies was not bad products but an inability to command a premium for their designs or nameplates. No one ever rhapsodized about the feel and responsiveness of a Gateway keyboard. (Apple’s draw raves, but Steve Jobs started selling something other than hardware or software a long time ago.) Other tech-related companies have also moved from hardware to software. Network equipment maker Cisco has spent decades acquiring and integrating advanced technologies to keep from becoming a low-margin vendor of “plumbing.”

Like tech companies that have successfully made the transition to software and services, automakers may stand to gain, not lose, when the pool of people who want superchargers or ceramic brakes starts to shrink. The margins for selling mobility as a service will be much higher than for traditional auto sales, Sherif Marakby, Ford’s VP of autonomous vehicles and electrification, told the Detroit Free Press this week.

Instead of showing off a brand-new Mustang at the kids’ soccer practice, dads of the future may ride up in an wimpy-looking shuttle and tell everyone about their shares in the company that owns it.

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You think cities-vs-Uber was complicated? Get ready for self-driving cars

Double-parking by ride-hail cars has gotten so bad in San Francisco that the city is ready to make a deal. It’s scouting trial locations for a program that would set aside curb space for Uber and Lyft drivers to pick up passengers, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

This is one more sign of change on the curbs of San Francisco, where space once used for on-street parking is giving way to transit, cycling, and other uses. It’s also the city’s latest attempt to craft a workable response to its fast-growing ride-hail services. But by the time City Hall solved the issues they’ve raised so far, autonomous vehicle technology is likely to raise a whole set of new ones, as I’ll explain in a moment.

There’s no turning back now

Ride-hail services have become so ubiquitous in the city that officially accommodating them with designated pickup zones now seems reasonable. The startups may have begun on the fringes of the law and devastated the cab industry that the city sanctioned (and rewarded with enforced scarcity) for decades, but they’ve become a fact of life. It’s too late for San Francisco to ban Uber and Lyft, even if it weren’t the companies’ hometown. If it makes sense to sacrifice street parking for safer cycling or transit, it seems reasonable to officially make some room for ride-hail pickups.

And the city might come out the winner in this deal if it gets what the Examiner reports it’s seeking: not just records of how the designated pickup spots are used, but raw GPS data on vehicle locations, information on collisions and brake-slamming, and data on wheelchair-accessible trips, among other things.

Though it may make life easier for riders, the plan is also intended to cut down on illegal activity by ride-hail drivers. They break the law every time they stop in a traffic lane to pick up or drop off passengers, wait for the next ride request, or work with the app on their phones. In addition to causing traffic backups, double parking can block drivers’ views, force cyclists into hazardous situations, and generally make streets more chaotic and less safe. It’s just one of many practices cited by critics who say ride-hail services have made the streets more dangerous.

Yet from a law enforcement perspective today, bad Uber and Lyft drivers are like any other scofflaws. Cops keep an eye out for violations, stop and question drivers, and issue tickets.

Here come the cautious robots

All that is about to get more complicated. On Thursday, General Motors said it will have a fleet of self-driving cars providing ride-hailing services in San Francisco by 2019. Last year it paid more than half a billion dollars to buy Cruise, a local autonomous car startup, which has been testing vehicles here for months. And Cruise isn’t alone: Uber, Tesla, and Google-affiliated Waymo all have self-driving ride-hail services in the works.

Cities that have found it hard to regulate ride-hail services with human drivers will face much greater uncertainty as software starts piloting the cars. The issues will expand from business models to sheer on-the-street control and enforcement. To begin with, how do you ticket a car with no driver? Can you do it automatically? Self-driving vehicles might be easier to regulate than those with humans behind the wheel, or they might be much harder to control.

Like so much else these days, it’s all about the power of data and algorithms. Whereas the inputs for a human driver’s road behavior may include driving skill, lack of sleep, distraction, caffeine, and how they feel about that driver who just cut them off, the way a self-driving car behaves is determined entirely by code someone wrote and uploaded (or sent over the air) to the vehicle. Thousands of hours of road testing go into this software, and the vehicles make decisions in novel situations based on algorithms rather than hard-coded rules. But someone designed and programmed how the car would learn and act.

So rather than simply reacting to unpredictable actions by human drivers, as they do today, cities may be able to determine ahead of time how self-driving cars use the streets.

The geofencing solution

For example, one step San Francisco officials are considering to ease the double-parking crunch is to geofence blocks where it’s a big problem and keep Uber and Lyft off those blocks. Geofencing draws a virtual border around an area on a digital map so devices can be instructed to stay in or out of that area. In this case, if ride-hail customers asked to be picked up on one of the geofenced blocks, the Uber or Lyft app wouldn’t allow it. The customer would have to choose another place to get picked up. UCLA just implemented a system like this on its campus.

It seems possible that customers and human drivers could get around this mechanism, because they can use text messaging for communication. A passenger who wanted badly enough to be picked up on a geofenced block instead of the next one over might be able to ask the driver to go there anyway, because the geofence wouldn’t actually stop the car.

I’m not suggesting that jumping geofences is likely to be a big problem. But if a city (or a ride-hailing company) could control where a self-driving car is able to go, that opens up a lot of other possibilities for control. For example, under the deal San Francisco wants to make with Uber and Lyft, the city would get some GPS data on the companies’ cars. With the right kind of GPS information, at a high enough resolution, in real time, the city might be able to make sure ride-hail cars simply can’t double park. And maybe they couldn’t exceed the speed limit, “block the box,” or cut someone off.

But if one tweak to a ride-hailing company’s software could stop self-driving cars from double parking, it could also make them start doing it. In an imagined future where almost every car in a city is operated by a service provider and controlled through software, traffic behavior throughout the city could change overnight based on changes made by that company. Ride-hailing companies might become something more akin to a utility running critical infrastructure rather than the vendor of a consumer service. Wouldn’t government want some say in how that infrastructure operated?

What’s under the covers?

That future vision is far off, but if self-driving cars are about to become part of ride-hailing services, it’s worth asking how those cars are programmed to do their jobs. When Cruise demonstrated its cars for journalists here earlier this week, some found the vehicles’ street behavior conservative to a fault. The Chevy Bolt electric hatchbacks, under computer control with an engineer behind the wheel as a precaution, traveled slowly, cautiously, and scrupulously within the law.

Will autonomous ride-hail vehicles be programmed to double park, to allow for convenient pickups, or not to double park, since it’s technically illegal and potentially dangerous? Or will the cars treat laws like most of us do, staying generally on the level but making exceptions where it seems safe to do so? Somewhere, software developers are making these decisions.

My guess is that when consumers start catching autonomous rides, they’ll see that cars are mostly safer than human drivers. Then, they’ll get antsy. And pretty soon they’ll be begging their programmed chauffeurs to speed, double park, and cut off that guy who jumped in front of them five minutes ago. The smartest cars in the world won’t be human enough for us.

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Why is it getting easier to park on my street?

When my downstairs neighbor came up for dinner last week, the conversation turned to parking. We live in a fairly dense residential part of San Francisco, don’t have off-street parking, and both own cars. Parking is a hassle: Break-ins are common, there are street-cleaning days when either side of the street gets crowded, and coming home late sometimes means leaving my car three blocks up a steep hill.

But my neighbor said something that night that surprised me until I realized it was true: Parking is getting easier here.

We’re used to thinking of street parking as one of the headaches that come with urban living. Coming from the suburbs, I never really mastered parallel parking until I moved here. Seeing an empty curb right in front of my apartment feels sort of like finding a dollar on the sidewalk. But now that I think about it, that treat is becoming less rare.

Could this really be happening?

San Francisco continues to boom. It’s gained nearly 100,000 residents since the year 2000 and more than 9,000 in the past year, reaching a record high population of almost 875,000, according to the California Department of Finance. Our neighborhood has felt the impact: Several big new condos and apartment buildings have gone up since height limits were increased a few years ago. None provides a parking space for every unit. We’ve also seen a tech startup move into a small building down the street.

What we’re seeing is an apparent reversal, in one small way, of everything we’ve come to expect from growth and transportation in this country. While traffic in the neighborhood and the city has gotten worse throughout this region’s economic boom, local street parking around here seems to be going the opposite way.

How could parking be getting easier? We identified two likely factors, each related in some way to the boom itself.

The tech effect

As in most San Francisco neighborhoods, many of the new arrivals wear hoodies, appear to be in their twenties, and stare at their phones as they walk down the street. I haven’t asked, but they probably work for tech companies.

Young people are rejecting — or at least postponing — car ownership at significant rates. In 2014, just over three-quarters of people aged 20-24 had driver’s licenses, down from 91.8 percent in 1983. And this is one of the easiest places in the country to get away with it. For those who work in suburban office parks, private commuter buses stop right down the street. For working and playing here in the city, there are plenty of ways to get around without owning a car.

After all, this is the home of car sharing (Zipcar, Getaround, and the like), ride-hailing apps (Uber and Lyft), bus-like private van services (Chariot) and two-wheeler transportation apps like Scoot and Ford GoBike. Urban design scholar Leopold Wambersie de Brouwer discussed the explosion of new transportation options, and how they might relate to each other, in a brilliant Medium post earlier this year. He takes a balanced view that’s rare on this topic, and the piece is well worth a read.

My neighbor and I concluded that either new arrivals are replacing residents who parked on the street, or current neighbors are giving up their cars.

Locals’ advantage

One thing that isn’t driving this change, to any significant degree, is city government. Residents enjoy nearly unlimited free parking on non-metered streets within the neighborhood, even while outsiders are generally limited to two hours. For this, the locals pay less than $200 per year, per car. The city is forming more parking districts like this, adding other minor restrictions, and raising the cost of the annual permits, but it’s still essentially free parking. This can’t possibly recognize the full economic value of the street space that parked cars use.

My neighbor and I aren’t complaining, because this system benefits us and fits our lifestyles. He drives to work outside the city because he found the public transit commute unreliable. I haven’t driven to work in years, but since I already own a car with low gas and maintenance costs, it’s more economical to keep it than to rent. Car ownership also offers greater freedom to drive out of the city whenever I like (not solely “the aura of freedom” that de Brouwer identifies) because I never have to reserve a vehicle from a service.

Yet the whole phenomenon of residential street parking may not have much time left on the meter of history.

The bigger picture

As cities promote alternatives to private vehicle use, competition for streetscape space is growing. Over the past few years, San Francisco has converted open street lanes to bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, and sidewalk space. Sidewalk additions have included wider sidewalks along entire blocks, permanent “bulb-outs” that extend the curb into the street for part of the block, and “parklets,” which turn former parking spaces into public use zones with places to sit, often in front of cafes.

In some cases, these new features coexist with street parking. In others, parking gives way in the interest of promoting alternatives to personal cars. One new plan to make cycling safer on a block with train tracks in the middle of the street would eliminate 45 spaces in a residential area. Parking in that area will probably get harder before it gets easier. But this kind of competition for space may lead more residents to give up their cars until an equilibrium is reached, like in our neighborhood.

The hot trends in car tech, electric and autonomous, might also lead to less private-car parking on streets. Today, electric cars are hard to own without an off-street space where they can be charged. Some owners can probably make it work with chargers at their workplaces, but street parking will get less attractive as electrics proliferate, unless cities or their partners make a heavy investment in curbside chargers.

Just hop in?

In the future, combining electric and autonomous technology should make it easier to turn cars into roving transportation pods that city dwellers won’t need to own or to store near their homes. A self-driving car could pick up me or my neighbor whenever we  wanted and presumably cost less than an Uber or Lyft with a human driver. I would find a service like that more attractive than, say, Zipcar, which asks renters to fill the tank, return the car at a certain time, and take responsibility for driving a car they don’t own.

Self-driving cars could charge themselves and run virtually around the clock. They would only need a shop for occasional maintenance and a parking space somewhere in the region for times when there were more cars than needed. They might be stored on city streets at times, but probably not overnight or for days on end. And would consumers buy their own autonomous cars and then park them on the street? I’m guessing most would draw the line on ownership well before that.

All these visions are far from becoming real. Even after cars can drive themselves and roam around picking up riders, they’ll probably share the road with conventional vehicles for decades. Street parking spaces, and the residents who use them, will hang on tenaciously for a long time. But parallel-parking prowess and snagging that choice spot right in front of your apartment may go the way of advanced equestrian skills.

Facebook’s GM moment

Two seemingly unrelated news items in the past few days caught my eye.

One was Monday’s announcement by General Motors that it plans to become an all-electric automaker. The symbol of American automotive tradition said it will stop selling vehicles powered by internal combustion engines on an undisclosed date in the future. This may be a smart business move if more consumers start to see electric cars as cleaner and more economical than fuel-burning models, but it can also be interpreted in part as an acknowledgment that GM is to blame for some of the harm cars have done.

The other was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s apology, posted Saturday, for “the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude he was referring to political Facebook posts that were promoted by foreign influencers during the last election cycle, more than 3,000 of which the company turned over to Congress on Monday. But he may also have been apologizing for a fundamental part of the company’s business model, its ability target different paid content to each user’s tastes and views as calculated by algorithms. This practice has helped to create the political echo chambers of left and right in the U.S. and other countries.

GM and Facebook may seem like opposite poles of the world economy, one a 110-year-old Rust Belt manufacturer and the other an millennial-led Silicon Valley Internet company. But in at least one important way, their stories may turn out to echo each other. Facebook’s GM moment could be close at hand.

The line connecting Detroit with Menlo Park passes through rapid, phenomenal, world-changing success.

Each company is an icon of a technology that has changed the way people live almost everywhere on the planet. GM helped to drive the automotive revolution in the 20th century, and Facebook has played a big role in defining how the Internet is used in the 21st.

Cars took over the world fast: In the U.S. in 1910, two years after GM was founded, there were five cars for every 1,000 people. (That’s a long wait for an Uber.) By 1930, the figure was 217 per 1,000 people — more than one car for every five U.S. residents. Paved roads, parking lots, and suburbs accessible only by car followed. The automobile changed where people lived, how people spent their time, and how they interacted with one another.

Likewise, in 1996 only 11 percent of people in developed countries used the Internet. That figure is now over 80 percent. (More than 2 billion people use Facebook.) Perhaps even more important, beginning in 2007 the iPhone and its progeny led to people using the Internet for more purposes, in more places, more of the time — for some, practically all the time.

New ways of using the Internet emerge every week. Some just make it easier to buy a certain item, while others transform an entire class of experiences, like finding partners, going on vacation, or getting across town. That kind of change doesn’t come without unintended consequences.

We’ve been here before. In the first decades after World War II, motor vehicles looked like the best tool for everything. Cities bulldozed neighborhoods for elevated highways so cars could move unimpeded by cross traffic. Waterfront views were given over to drivers. Streetcar lines were removed from most U.S. cities — and not just by a cabal of plutocrats looking to sell more buses and oil. A San Francisco mayor once tried to replace the last cable cars with diesel buses wheezing up the city’s 20-degree grades. Consumers embraced drive-in theaters and restaurants.

Eventually, the novelty wore off. When those smooth highways filled up with cars, driving became a drag. Some freeways came down, which boosted economies. Waterfronts were opened up and flourished. The cable cars, and San Francisco tourism, were saved. Urban land is too valuable to devote 59 percent of a downtown to cars, as Los Angeles once did. L.A. County voters have approved taxes for new transit lines more than once. Movies went indoors and onto video. The Fonz doesn’t order food from carhops anymore, he stands in line.

It turned out that motor vehicles were great for some things, like rural travel, family vacations, and deliveries, but not for everything. Which brings us to Facebook.

In the first flush of excitement over what advanced social media made possible, it may have looked like targeted content was a win for everyone. Consumers would see more of what interested them, and advertisers and promoters (whoever those might be) would reach more consumers who wanted to hear what they had to say.

This worked, but as with earlier innovations spawned by cars, social media also had a dark side. When consumers found it easier to get their news from Facebook than from traditional news sources, their friends and the company’s endlessly refined algorithms created feeds that served as blinders more than as windows on the world. Every item became a call to action — at least Liking or Sharing, and sometimes voting.

Within that system, foreign interests allegedly found a way to influence U.S. elections with almost surgical precision. Facebook didn’t notice this, maybe due to its vast scale and automation or maybe because it was just too profitable to look the other way. This set the company up for dangerous manipulation.

Congress may act to prevent these kinds of attacks. But even if social media companies can ferret out deliberate political interference, there may be no way to fix a basic flaw in the way their systems keep people informed. When a news source only tells you what you want to hear, and only on the subjects you want to hear about, then you’re barely better informed after checking it than you were before you looked. The messages never change much: Yes, the world is messed up. Yes, our side is winning, or losing, in the same battle we’ve been watching for years. No, there is no other way of looking at it.

Traditional news isn’t perfect, either. It has its own bias traps, groupthink, and sensation-mongering. But the problems Facebook is having now are part of a wave of realizations that will only grow in the coming years. As they emerge, we’ll realize that while the Internet will always be with us, and some of the things it’s used for have lasting value, other innovations that once seemed benign will turn out to be untenable. The Internet’s place won’t always be to dominate our consciousness.

It’s harder to see the equivalent of freeways, blocked views, and smog when they come in the form of bits and liquid-crystal displays, but change does comes more quickly on the Internet than on the road. The reckoning is coming. When will we see Facebook go electric?

(I revised this post on Oct. 6 to refine some points and add a few more details.)

Silicon Valley loves “cities”

The launch on Wednesday of a startup called Bodega, which aims to put what is essentially a larger version of a hotel minibar in the lobbies of condos and apartment buildings, drew swift condemnation from commentators defending real bodegas, also known as corner stores.

“Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you,” co-founder Paul McDonald told Fast Company. It’s a typically grandiose Silicon Valley vision, but not necessarily delusional. Thanks to deep venture-capital pockets, tech startups can grow fast. Bodega has about 80 locations on the West Coast now and expects to have more than 1,000 nationwide by the end of next year. Hours after that story appeared, and amid a wave of online criticism, McDonald backtracked, saying his company wouldn’t replace corner stores but supplement them.

PC Magazine’s Sascha Segan eloquently slammed Bodega as a bid to kill off a vital component of urban life in the pursuit of profit. Real bodegas can be many things to city-dwellers, he pointed out, including social gathering places, UPS pickup locations, and phone lockers for kids who can’t bring their devices to school. Bodega, the startup, would replace these active, multifaceted businesses with boxes of merchandise, cameras that record customers taking items from the box, and back-end software that charges them automatically.

This could have all kinds of follow-on effects, including the death of a type of business that has given many immigrant families their start in America, Segan wrote. Once again, a Silicon Valley behemoth would consolidate small businesses out of existence through automation, economies of scale, and rapid expansion. Other writers questioned whether the company’s business model will work, or whether anything can displace real bodegas.

Segan is right about the potential dangers of startups like Bodega that want to replicate urban small businesses and services using rapid, venture-funded growth. Another example is Lyft Line, a service from the ride-hailing company that duplicates popular public transit routes with low-priced shared rides. Such a service could sap revenue from public systems that are mandated to serve all residents.

But Segan leaves out an important wrinkle in this clash between the Bodegas of the world and, well, the bodegas of the world.

“Simply put, Silicon Valley disdains cities,” Segan writes. But that’s not quite right.

Silicon Valley LOVES cities. At least the people who work there do. Many of the Valley’s young, well-paid entrepreneurs and disrupters choose to live in San Francisco despite long commutes to suburban campuses like the headquarters of Google, where Bodega’s founders used to work. Naturally, Google has offices in the city, too, and Twitter and other companies started here and never left. It’s seen as the main factor behind the well-chronicled gentrification of the city, which is driving up rents and displacing some portion of long-term, lower-income residents. The reviled Google buses are appropriately dark and looming evidence of tech workers’ desire to live in a city.

Those young workers seek out cities for the same reason people throughout the U.S. and other countries are embracing urban living: Cities bring people together. High population density, especially where streets are walkable, increases the prospects for daily chance encounters among different kinds of people. Those crossings are important for young, single people and can make life more enjoyable and safer for everyone, as Jane Jacobs wrote in her groundbreaking work on reviving urban areas, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

But Silicon Valley’s love of cities has a limit. Googlers and Facebookers may enjoy chance encounters and voice support for diversity. (And because there are hundreds of thousands of Silicon Valley tech workers, with different professions and income levels, it’s impossible to generalize about all of their attitudes and where they fit in society.) But startups like Bodega and services like Lyft Line seem to promise an urban life where most chance encounters will be among people who aren’t really that different from each other. If you grab your breakfast from the famous luxe bakery Tartine and take a ride-hailing service to your Caltrain station, you’re likely to meet people pretty much like you along the way.

The sheer economic weight of Silicon Valley itself is beginning to make this a reality whether all its workers want it or not. A neighborhood like the Mission District is still far from homogeneous in income, ethnicity, or lifestyle, and there are efforts from many sides to keep it that way. But whether through nefarious methods or not, residents who aren’t somehow connected to Silicon Valley’s world are becoming more scarce, and businesses geared toward tech workers are gradually taking the place of average businesses like bodegas.

These affluent residents flock to independent stores boasting artisanal products, not to chains hawking the same stuff anyone can buy in Phoenix or Modesto — though the line blurs as corporate behemoths look for a piece of the action, as Nestle did on Thursday when it bought Blue Bottle Coffee. But buying unique products in a handcrafted store that only people in one income bracket can afford isn’t the same as shopping in a true diversity of businesses, including ones where you might run into anyone.

Gussied-up shopping strips like the one on Valencia Street in the Mission can be beautiful places to stroll, full of interesting shops and restaurants and lively weekend crowds. But Silicon Valley loves cities the way Walt Disney loved small towns. Main Street, the neat and tidy “small town” center of Disneyland, was inspired by the commercial and social heart of Disney’s own small hometown in Missouri. It’s modern commerce encased in loving nostalgia. The shop buildings appear mixed-use, but none of the upper floors are full-scale.

Disneyland’s Main Street is a gathering place, but only for people who’ve paid the price of admission. There are chance encounters, but not many that will broaden anyone’s worldview. There are many shops, but only one proprietor. And to get around, you can take a Disney double-decker bus, a Disney horse-drawn trolley, or a Disney antique car. Consolidation is total, and every day is a happy day.

That’s not how real cities work. As Segan puts it, “cities tend to be messy, with a lot of knock-on effects and ad-hoc aspects.”  That messiness is part of the complex ecosystem required anywhere people try to live — and live full lives, not just reside — in close proximity to one another. If startups like Bodega try to replace parts of that system by undercutting them but can’t replicate all the benefits they provided, city-dwellers will be in trouble — or the city eventually will restore equilibrium and, in its own way, tell startups where to go.