Unfortunately, America’s roads have seen better days. After a massive investment in new infrastructure since the mid-20th century, streets, roads, and freeways have ossified. New roads are tough to build in established cities, and existing ones are increasingly difficult to improve. When roads do get built, they are usually constructed for new development in suburbs or subdivisions. Fear, local resident entrenchment, and lack of funding has hampered adequate upgrades of roads, too. America’s car cities—Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and Dallas, for example—have endured increased congestion when more and more cars travel on roads built for far fewer.
Even when the roads are clear, they are often in poor condition. The economic crisis of 2008 reduced the tax base that supports public service in the near term, but it also inaugurated a prolonged program of social austerity justified by that supposed crisis. And the longer maintenance and support gets deferred, the more complex and costly it becomes to catch up.
The state of public roads might have a surprising and substantial impact on the role of self-driving cars. Cars need roads to drive on, so the technology companies at the center of the robocar revolution might become increasingly invested in them. But roads themselves might become inaccessible to citizens if driving becomes fully autonomous.
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If one thing’s clear about cities of the future, it’s that they will become more and more intertwined with the technology business. Public-private partnerships—mergers of private and public funding and support—are helping make costly, unpopular urban development projects more palatable, including tech-enabled transit. Altamonte Springs, a city of 42,000 residents north of Orlando, Florida, for instance, is set to begin offering Uber public subsidies to service its residents. The initiative, which is worth up to half a million dollars a year to the ride-hailing company for starters, effectively turns it into a private provider of public transit.
Eventually, other, larger cities might choose such arrangements to spare themselves the cost and trouble of maintaining public transit services. Such an outcome wouldn’t be entirely new, either. Before the car took over after World War II, public transit was mostly privately owned and operated in America. A return to privatized transit in the form of car-hailing services would make a poetic victory for the automobile over the train and the bus.
A welcome one, too. Citizens are becoming more and more accustomed to the conveniences of app-based services like Uber and Lyft. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reportedly has 100 people working on future urban design projects at a new entity, Sidewalk Labs.
It’s not hard to imagine a near future in which municipalities like Altamonte Springs might use the cost savings (or direct investment) of companies like Uber, Lyft, or Google to invest in much-needed maintenance and updates. Once cars become autonomous, the benefit of investments like these will increase even further, since the cost and liability of human drivers can be averted. Better roads mean lower maintenance costs.