San Francisco at a crossroads over future of driverless cars

Here is one possible future for San Francisco: People are whisked effortlessly from their homes to their jobs with the touch of a button. Our city streets are filled with hyper-efficient, driverless vehicles that never need to park except to recharge their batteries. Some of these vehicles pick up multiple passengers, like the Muni buses they replaced. But many more are occupied by just one person who is happy to pay more for the privileges of privacy and expediency. Deaths and injuries from traffic collisions are exceedingly rare, but the streets are eerily quiet, largely empty of people waiting for the streetcar or filling the sidewalks with conversation. Street musicians no longer have audiences to entertain. The city noises, so familiar to us today, have been replaced by the low, collective hum of thousands of electric motors.

Here is another vision of San Francisco’s future: Driverless cars are an important part of the fabric of bustling, lively streets, but they are far outnumbered by people taking transit, walking and biking. Neighborhoods across our city are safe, vibrant, green spaces. Parents feel comfortable letting their children bike to school along the network of protected bike lanes crisscrossing The City. Electric-assist bicycles make it easy for residents of every hill from Excelsior Heights to Russian Hill to bike to work and school. Infrastructure and autonomous vehicle technology have dramatically improved street safety in this future, as well, and the closest thing to a traffic jam is a joyous throng of thousands of people pedaling down Market Street on protected bike lanes. Everywhere there is the jubilant noise of people walking and talking, dancing and protesting, laughing and living their lives in the open.

The death of Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Ariz., on Sunday night was a tragic and jarring reminder that we now stand at the crossroads between these two futures. Herzberg was attempting to cross a busy, six-lane street designed to prioritize the fast movement of people driving at the expense of safety. Tempe police and our own local press were quick to blame the victim: She was crossing outside of the crosswalk, there was no possible way the autonomous vehicle could have avoided hitting her, no time for the “safety driver” to intervene. Herzberg is the first pedestrian to be hit and killed by an autonomous vehicle in self-driving mode.

The investigation continues, and more facts surrounding the collision that killed Herzberg will emerge. Without having to wait for their findings, however, we already know the street where she died was designed without regard for the safety of people walking and biking. We also know Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey irresponsibly welcomed “Uber self-driving cars with open arms and wide open roads,” along with minimal regulation.

Without strong regulation and street design that prioritizes walking, biking and transit, Uber, Lyft, Waymo, Cruise and their successors will make billions while our public spaces will wither and die, further dividing people along the lines of wealth and privilege.

On Feb. 26, California DMV Director Jean Shiomoto announced the DMV would allow fully autonomous vehicle testing on our state’s streets without a test driver behind the wheel. That’s one less safety measure than was in place in Tempe on Sunday night. Permits for these vehicles may be issued as soon as Monday, April 2. Until a full and thorough investigation into the fatal Tempe collision can be concluded, we call on the California DMV to delay issuing any such permit.

There is a rush to market underway, with corporations vying to advance their autonomous vehicle technology faster than their competitors. Their profit motive is driving cities toward allowing treatment of our public streets like corporate laboratories. As people who bike and walk, as people who cherish the democratizing complexity of urban space, we must advocate for a safer, more lively future tomorrow and in the years to come. That means streets and regulations designed to put people — and our safety — first.

Both future visions of our city are foreseeable. The street design and regulatory decisions that our elected officials, policymakers and industry leaders make today will determine which vision becomes our reality. In Herzberg’s memory, we implore them to choose wisely.

Brian Wiedenmeier is the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

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