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News + PoliticsTransportationRobotaxis are an existential threat to SF's public transit system

Robotaxis are an existential threat to SF’s public transit system

The Breed Administration is ignoring perhaps the most dangerous impact of the new autonomous vehicles.

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As one robotaxi after another either “seizes up,” blocking traffic lanes or, with increasing regularity, rams into another vehicle, the Breed Administration’s primary position appears to be that we need “more data” before we come to any policy decision about what must be done to address the massive deployment of these “autonomous vehicles” on our streets.

Mayor London Breed, usually not shy in seeking public attention on policy proposals she feels are popular, is uncharacteristically silent on this key issue and has no real policy proposal to make about the deployment of driverless cars on the streets of her hometown, content to have bureaucrats write letters.  

A Cruise robotaxis in a crash in the Mission Thursday night. Photo by Michael Redmond

The city attorney has now called upon the California Public Utilities Commission to vacate its decision to allow unlimited deployment of robotaxis until the city can argue its case again before that body in the light of continued failures of these driverless cars.  But that case is still limited to the need to gather more data.

Both Gov. Gavin Newsom and the city’s tech movers and shakers are in strong support of the immediate and massive deployment of this new technology on our streets. The mayor, needing both in what is shaping up to be a tough re-election campaign, seems to have lost her voice on the policy implications of 10,000 or so driverless vehicles, operated by cell phones (what could possibly go wrong?) careening around the streets of San Francisco.

But perhaps Mayor Breed didn’t read the letter sent in January, because the bureaucrats, while using the politest of language, and while calling only for more data, in fact laid out a rather sobering picture of the impact these vehicles already have on the operations of the already heavily stressed public transit system.

Skilled public-spirited bureaucrats (and there are such people) know how to give their political leaders what they want while still serving the public good.

The January 25, 2023 SFMTA letter sets outs as the primary reason for the need for new data and the delay in full deployment until that data is collected and analyzed the record complied by the City of some “92 unique incidents” that occurred between May and December of 2022 in which robotaxis (mainly Cruise) made “unplanned stops” that blocked travel lanes and impeded the operations of both public emergency services and public transit.  According to the letter 88 percent of these incidents occurred on streets used by Muni.

In just three cases cited in the letter, four stalled robotaxis blocked four Muni lines, which, if they had occurred at peak travel time (none in fact did), would have delayed some 11,700 Muni riders.

The robotaxis carry one or two people; buses, trolleys and light rail carry scores of riders. It is clear that with the data we had back in January increasing the number of driverless vehicles poses an existential threat to the entire public transit system weakened by a drop in ridership during COVID and suffering from no permanent, dedicated operating  subsidies.

The cluster flub that happened at Outside Lands in which Uber, Lyft, Cruise, and Waymo clogged the streets, jacked up prices and made Muni service impossible—and somehow caused Cruise to stall 10 cars in North Beach four miles away—perhaps could have been prevented if Rec and Park had limited access to cars and promoted Muni service including using special busses along JFK.

The point is that we have an administration that doesn’t seem to understand what “transit first” actually means and has no meaningful commitment to it.

The point not being made by the Breed Administration is that robotaxis will have a profound long-term impact on public transit. The current position stressing data collection and the impact on first responders ignores what happens when these services are tweaked enough to no longer stop at intersections or run into buses. What happens to public transit when these private companies work out the kinks and get riders who will pay more than a Muni fare and no longer take Muni?  How will we create the operating funding for public transit when a significant portion of the voting population no longer use the service?

We need leadership in making the case for public transit, showing why electronic cars are still more wasteful, less sustainable, and create even more social isolation than public transit. Breed and her administration are totally silent on these critically important issues. People must be encouraged to use public transit, or we will lose it.

We have seen how the Breed Administration willingly embraces policies which seem to address a critical issue but that actually ignores the real situation and worsens the problems it claims to address. We see that same patterns with drug use in the Tenderloin, in which the mayor openly attacks programs and policies articulated by the Health Department if they get in her political way. We see that in a real estate investment policy masquerading as a “housing policy,” addressing the “housing crisis” by, in effect, removing the people with the problem and replacing them with wealthy real estate investors.

There is a cautionary tale from the past that we need to keep in mind.  In the 1930s LA had a thriving streetcar system, the Red Cars. Heavily used during the war as LA’s war-time population exploded, it none the less fell into disrepair as key transit investments were not made in the post war years after a newly formed corporation, the National City Lines, took over the business.

The principal investors in the National City Lines were Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Standard Oil of California and (wait for it) General Motors (the owner of Cruise). Within less than two decades the streetcar tracks were torn up and the street cars were replaced by gasoline powered, General-Motors-built busses running on Firestone tires. Service declined as did ridership as people preferred cars to poorly maintained and managed (privately owned) public transit.

That’s how the private sector deals with public transit: it kills it.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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