Cities have been trying to “solve” traffic since ancient Rome, but now more than ever, it seems like real innovation gets drowned by noise. Alissa Walker of Curbed joins Alex to talk about a handful of these “solution-oriented” municipal projects, which ones might work, what probably won’t, and how autonomous vehicles might fit into the mix.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hey, everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving tech and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy. 

For nearly a year, a lot of US cities have looked like ghost towns, but as more people get vaccinated and things improve, congestion is starting to creep back.

Cities have been trying to solve traffic since ancient Rome, but now more than ever, it seems like good ideas… swamped by nonsense. How many times do I need to see a viral video about flying cars? Once is enough. So today, we’ve got one of the most cut through the hype people I know, the urbanism editor for Curbed, Alissa Walker. Alissa, welcome to the No Parking Podcast.

Alissa Walker

Hello, Alex.

Alex Roy

All right. Let’s start with one of these solution-oriented projects. You tell us what’s working, what probably won’t, and how autonomous vehicles might fit in. New York City bike-parking pilots, explain to me what this NYC bike-parking pilot is all about and whether anything’s going to come of it.

Alissa Walker

Yeah, this is so cool. I think it’s pronounced Oonee. It’s one of those amazing spellings of a word that you’ve never said out loud, but it’s so, so great. And Shabazz Stuart, who is the owner of this Brooklyn-based company, started it a few years ago for that very problem, I think, bike parking is so boring. And whatever the city proposes, it’s ultimately going to be just a bunch of really gross racks that get torn up or stolen and they’re not ever in the place that you actually need them. There was this big study that came out a few weeks ago by Transportation Alternatives, a great nonprofit working in New York, that was all about how much bike… theft is such a… this is like scourge for the city of New York. One in four-

Alex Roy

Can I stop you for one second?

Alissa Walker

Yeah.

Alex Roy

I’m a New Yorker, I used to live there for my whole life. Can you explain exactly what they mean by bike parking? Because I had a bike in New York, many bikes that were stolen. So what are they proposing? What is it?

Alissa Walker

Yeah. So, one in four households in New York have had a bike stolen, if you think about that. I mean, it’s a problem that everybody faces, but all the stories are about how you can’t park your car anywhere. So- [crosstalk 00:02:24]

Alex Roy

Actually, car parking, it was semi-possible, but go on.

Alissa Walker

But the real problem is that there are like one secured… and secure, I’m going “bike-parking spaces” for every 100 bikes, but there’s actually plenty of places to park with if you look at the cars. So what Oonee is proposing is really cool. It’s the shape of a car, it’s like the size and shape of a sedan, and it fits into a parking space. If you’ve ever checked out Zipcar, something like that, you get that little remote thing on your phone where you sign up for the app and you can unlock a car just by being nearby. So you get subscription access to these pods which are all over the city eventually.

This is just a pilot with a few of them that are going to go out. But you can park your bike in there. It also has a pump to inflate your tires. It can have a port to charge your bike if you have an electric bike. They look cool, you can put seating on it, you can put a garden on top of it. And the plan is to just slowly roll them out into places where… like if a whole block gets together and says, “We really want one of these on our street. We have seven people that will use it, start getting them on the neighborhoods that need them.”

What’s so great about this pilot, which is sponsored by one of the scooter companies that is trying to come to New York… They’re about to launch their scooter pilots, so they’re all trying to-

Alex Roy

Which one?

Alissa Walker

This one is Voi. I don’t know how to say any of these words, I’ve never said them out loud. V-O-I. So they are proposing this as part of a way where you could combine this with a place to park scooters outside, not in the pod, but where you can… We start to have these corralled areas of micro-mobility so they’re not just strewn across the sidewalk. So-

Alex Roy

Hold on a minute, wait. Right now, you have all the street parking in New York. Are we talking about taking… the city is going to eliminate a parking spot and put one of these things in it?

Alissa Walker

It doesn’t have to be every place, but I think what a lot of people will argue is that if they had secure bike parking, they would get a bike or get an e-bike, and then if they knew they had a place to put it and they could maybe even get rid of a car. But a lot of places, there’s plenty of sidewalk room.

Alex Roy

I think I would like this.

Alissa Walker

Yeah. What we-

Alex Roy

I think this is a good thing, right?

Alissa Walker

We gave space to all these restaurants to let them go in the street and the world hasn’t ended yet, so this is kind of the same thing. They’re going to put trash collection stuff in the street too now, so let’s just take up the street, just a little bit, right?

Alex Roy

So we like this, right?

Alissa Walker

The city needs to get behind it quick because you’re going to lose your… An increase in bike riding has been documented in New York, now many cities, but it’s way up in New York. A lot of people have bought bikes and if they haven’t experienced where they get stolen or they have to put them in a bad place in their apartment and they don’t like keeping it there, they’re going to lose that cyclist, right?

Alex Roy

What’s the counter-argument? Is there an anti-bike parking box lobby?

Alissa Walker

Well, yeah. The parking-

Alex Roy

Who’s against this?

Alissa Walker

The car-parking people. Remember these stories that they run like every three weeks in the New York Times, which is like, “I have no place to park my car.”? There’s people waiting in their car so the street super can go by and then they just put it right back. So there’s those people who will say, “You’re taking my parking.”

Alex Roy

I’ve been one of those people.

Alissa Walker

Yeah, you’ve existed as that person, but they just keep reporting on.

Alex Roy

I’ve waited. Yeah.

Alissa Walker

So I think there could be potentially pushback with people who are like, “You’re taking the one parking spot that I sit in every Tuesday in my car that I haven’t driven for two weeks and move.” So those people could probably be mad. And you could also argue that the businesses, places people go, or apartment buildings, or even vacant storefronts, which there could be a lot of them, could be better used as secure parking hubs. Not that we don’t need all types of things, but if you look at how much “empty space”, there might be other good solutions for keeping bikes security and maybe giving people jobs as these bike hub owners, could run these little facilities.

Alex Roy

I think someone, I don’t know if it was you or [Jose Donahue 00:06:39], showed numbers once, one person per car in traffic takes up the space of… is it six bicycles, 10 bicycles?

Alissa Walker

That’s how many it parks. It parks six to seven bikes in a parking spot. So yeah, that makes sense.

Alex Roy

So, if you have a bike box and people riding bikes, there’s probably some equilibrium point between the people who will never ride and all the people who enjoy riding,-

Alissa Walker

Exactly.

Alex Roy

… and then the parking space, bike box location thing will kind of sort itself out.

Alissa Walker

I think that’s his argument, the owner. I think that he made the case very well. It’s just like, if you just give people what they need… It’s the same thing with the infrastructure, the bike lanes, there’s a certain type of rider that’s never going to be comfortable unless every path to their destination is a separated bike lane. So, once you reach that equilibrium, you’ll have… We’re only aiming for 30% of the mode-share to be biking and micro-mobility. It’s not that much, but it would make a huge difference, right?

Alex Roy

You know what I would love? If I live in New York again, I’d love to have a bike in one of these boxes. I’d like to have an account for electric moped share, and then I’d want to… I keep my old vintage car outside the city in storage. And then- [crosstalk 00:07:59]

Alissa Walker

And how does that work? That’s the question I have for you. That sounds like a pain in the ass.

Alex Roy

Well, it’s not because… I mean, if you consider how much money I would have saved by not parking a car in a garage in Manhattan, I mean, that’s a lot, it’s hundreds of dollars. It’s a big chunk of rent goes to parking your car.

Alissa Walker

Yeah, because you got to keep it inside, you’re not going to put it on the streets and cover it with a car cover.

Alex Roy

Yeah. It’s insane. I did street park for years, but I would love to have… Instead of me relying on walking and driving, I would want to rely on… I mean, someday dream, electric moped rental, bike ownership, and an autonomous vehicle subscription. And that would cover 100% of my needs in the city with subway and then I’m done. I’m done.

Alissa Walker

Yes. Yeah. That’s the dream, I think.

Alex Roy

But I’m not going back to New York unless I get all those things. So I have to wait awhile. All right, let’s go to the next one. There was this Google project in Toronto and which was part of… Sidewalk Labs was an experiment. I remember when it was first announced, they said they were going to have their community branded, take over a piece of the waterfront. It came to an end. Will you tell us the story, what they were proposing, and why it ended?

Alissa Walker

Every tech company tries to do this or it says they want to do this at least once, is build these smart cities. Google’s was not one of the first, but they definitely made the best case for it because they make so many things that these people in this city would use and they created a whole other arm called Sidewalk. But then Alphabet became the overarching company of Google, so Sidewalk now has other parts of Alphabet and other businesses. Anyway, super complicated. But now they basically have started all these startups just to address the problems that they said they would face in the city of the future they were building.

So they went to a bunch of cities. Nobody really knows what happened here, but they didn’t even do it in the US, they went to Canada, and they talked to people in Toronto about getting this little… It’s not that big, a little portion of the waterfront. But it was a place that was super industrial, no one would be displaced they argued, and it was just a place that had been under many different development schemes over the years, but then they said that they could solve it. They hired a huge team to go live there, conduct outreach in the community.

They did everything that you’re supposed to do with this type of development, but the backlash was very swift. I don’t know how much money they spent just to get to this point, but it was pretty thoroughly defeated and they retreated… Was it last year? 2019 I think. They pulled the project completely and said that they would no longer pursue anything there. I think it’s an example of…

Alex Roy

Don’t pull up any punches, Ms. Walker.

Alissa Walker

I will just say, just to give you an example of the hubris, I think is how you would describe this project. Their press kit arrived at my house as a five-volume book, literally like four encyclopedias height of this published book that they had hired Pentagram, which is the biggest design firm, to design and-

Alex Roy

Pentagram?

Alissa Walker

Yeah, it’s called Pentagram.

Alex Roy

Really? That’s such a- [crosstalk 00:11:37]

Alissa Walker

They’re so good they transcend any questions about their name, their own branding. They had spent all this money just to create this press kit that was just like, “Here is thousands of pages, beautifully illustrated, explaining to you why we’re right and nothing that we say about this project could be wrong.” And I will say, there were some interesting ideas in there, especially about building buildings very quickly using laminated timber, which is like the kind of building material of the future which is much more sustainable and stronger and pleasant to look at.

Alex Roy

Was it affordable? Was the point of this to make it affordable because we need affordable housing?

Alissa Walker

Well, their argument was they would build a factory outside of Toronto, log the forest in Canada and produce and create their own supply chain basically, which would make it affordable. And it’s Google, of course they could do this if they put their mind to doing it. So things like that where they had everything thought out. Of course, autonomous vehicles were part of it, they had these reactive sidewalks where every paver had some kind of… was connected to software in some way so you could change the programming of the paver or track people walking over it. There were these awnings that kind of like came off the buildings if there was snow, that could be heated. I mean, everything was thought of, but in the end, they couldn’t convince the Senate.

Alex Roy

Most of this sounds cool.

Alissa Walker

It does. I mean, I’m not saying some of the ideas weren’t good or didn’t have value, but presenting it in a way to this community where they would also have to sign up for being tracked, their movements would be tracked, or they were unsure about how their data would be used if they walked on those sidewalk pavers, right? There was questions. But it’s not to say that Google couldn’t do something like that on their own campus. I mean, there’s a housing crisis in California and it would be…. If they wanted to do something like this, they own a lot of land in Silicon Valley, why not just try the idea in your own backyard?

Alex Roy

Do it right there, yeah.

Alissa Walker

Yeah, go ahead, I’m not against that.

Alex Roy

The thing that caught my attention, this is a few years ago, was when they said that they would be no private vehicle ownership inside the community. And that rankled me because I knew how far away autonomous vehicles really were. And I wasn’t like an expert then, but it just seemed very obvious to me that that was going to take a while. And you can’t move somewhere unless you know in advance what your mobility choices are, because it guides your budgeting for your whole life. When I saw that, I’m like, “This thing can’t work. This can just can’t work,” because I know. Even today, you don’t see autonomous vehicle companies testing… if they’re testing in snow, they’re not giving you deployment timelines for winter areas. In Toronto, it snows.

Alissa Walker

There’s snow. Yeah.

Alex Roy

That’s when I was like, even if they nail everything else, you have to have some kind of… What’s the word? Seasonal balancing. People need to have reliable transportation, or you have Texas this week.

Alissa Walker

Yeah. I mean, look at micro-mobility doesn’t work, autonomous vehicles don’t work, the buses don’t work. How do you plan for something like that? And we do need to plan for something like that.

Alex Roy

Yeah. We do.

Alissa Walker

So heated sidewalks maybe was the best solution that came out of the Sidewalk Labs.

Alex Roy

Let’s move on to another crazy one, trash management. That’s not that crazy. You did a story about sidewalk trash in New York City again. And then there was another trash story in the New York Times. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I have questions.

Alissa Walker

I really don’t know how to explain anything going on in New York and trash, because every time I learn more about it, it makes no sense how this could have gotten to this point. But basically, the two things to know if you are not… and you can correct me on all this, but if you live in New York, there are piles of trash on the sidewalk in every neighborhood because that’s how the trash gets picked up. They pick it up off of office sidewalk in a bag. And that blows my mind.

Alex Roy

Well, how do they do it in other cities?

Alissa Walker

Well, You have alleyways that have dumpsters. You don’t have alleys in New York, or at least in Manhattan, because they just decided to just fill it in with more stuff, which is good from a growth perspective. Or we put our bins out into the street on a certain day and then we put them back into our apartment buildings or houses.

Alex Roy

The future.

Alissa Walker

So none of that exists, not yet. It’s the future. None of that exists in New York, which is just one small element. And when you’re talking about mobility and getting around especially after you have a big snow storm, you’ve got piles of snow, piles of trash, piles of snow on top of piles of trash, and then you have also now restaurants trying to operate in parking spaces and people using streets differently because of the pandemic. The other thing is how that trash is actually collected. You sign up with one of these private companies to do your trash collection. There’s no kind of systemic rules for who picks it up or when or the routes or making sure…

At least in my street, I know the trash goes out on Wednesday. There’s one truck that comes by on Wednesday, it picks up all the trash. Another one comes in and does the green bin, another one comes and does the recycling. But I know that it all happens at the same time and the routes are managed in a way to mitigate the impact that it might have on our streets. What’s happened in New York is there’s been these terrible deaths of people being hit by trash trucks because nobody knows how to predict however their movements are happening, but also because a lot of these companies don’t have any kind of oversight and they’re hiring people that are-

Alex Roy

Hold on a minute. Let me understand this. You’re telling me that it… I guess I’m such a blinders on New Yorker, that other cities have a unified trash collection regime, that it operates on a schedule, optimized to mitigate congestion?

Alissa Walker

That is correct. Or at least mine does.

Alex Roy

So this is interesting because it comes back to traffic management and autonomous vehicles too, because in order to deploy autonomous vehicles in a city, you need to know if a rolling roadblock like a trash truck, you need to know what their schedule is, or you can’t come up with ETAs to deliver goods or people. How optimistic are you that this problem… Does this problem exists outside of New York? I mean, how many cities have this problem?

Alissa Walker

I’m sure there are. I mean, we have some private trash collectors. We have a system for at least commercial trash. I think a lot of cities have the same type of movement of unpredictable vehicles, but you can also make the same argument that delivery is quite a similar process because it’s by all these third-party organizations and drivers who are contracted to just go out as fast as they can and deliver things and not pay attention to the rules of the road and park in haphazard places, and again, hiring people who are…

One of the things in that story that you sent me that was just so scary was they don’t even know who’s working for some of these companies because they’re hiring undocumented labor on the cheap and then not giving them any kind of benefits or insurance or making sure that they’re getting a fair wage to do what is very dangerous work.

Alex Roy

It is. I remember seeing, growing up, a lot of crashes with these garbage trucks. And also you’d have a second guy hanging off the back, kind of hanging off, and occasionally they would fall off. It’s funny. That’s a problem that you don’t hear, or at least I feel like I haven’t heard a lot about at mobility conferences. Everyone’s like, “Yeah, five years, ubiquitous, self-driving cars.” Not until you solve this.

Alissa Walker

Yeah. Well, I guess it is automated in some way. We have those robot arms that go over and pick up the trash can and flip it in, and that could be the dream where you right-size the vehicles, make them electric. Maybe there’ll have predictable enough movements that you could eventually have these autonomous shuttles or even the little ones that roll on the sidewalk and you just throw your trash in, you don’t have a lot of trash, you just go throw it out. In other countries, there’s a day that there’s trash collection that comes to you and you have to go out and throw it in the trash truck, and if you don’t, sorry.

Alex Roy

Yeah. I lived in France for a number of years and I marveled at how efficient some things were. Speaking of trends and crazy solutions obscuring real solutions, I noticed on Twitter that certain political officials in Miami were exchanging tweets with Elon Musk. I drive one of his cars and I love it, but these tweets were about tunnels. And I’ve read your wonderful stories on this. Could you please deconstruct the Elon Musk tunnel business in Vegas, and then let’s talk about implementing one in Miami.

Alissa Walker

Yeah. The one in Vegas is supposed to open or was. They said it’s almost finished, but there was no CES this year so I guess there’s no one to test it there, they’ll just be riding it themselves. But that was the first paying customer of the Boring Company, which is Elon Musk’s tunnel venture which he came up with supposedly when he was stuck on traffic on the 405 in LA when he used to live here. Now he lives in Texas. But he decided that-

Alex Roy

And he regrets that.

Alissa Walker

I’m sure he’ll have some kind of electrical grid solution by tomorrow. He said he wanted to drive under the traffic, so he decided he wanted to buy a tunnel-boring machine. He did buy one. It’s an old sewer tunnel-boring machine from Northern California city, like a municipal agency. So what he’s digging is actually the size of a sewer, thinking of tunnel diameters, it’s not as big as a subway tunnel. So just keep that in mind. That’s why I like to call it a car sewer. So, he started digging this tunnel in Hawthorne under the SpaceX headquarters. It’s a city within Los Angeles, right by the airport. He dug a tunnel, he invited the members of the press to come to this tunnel. It was a bumpy ride I’ll tell you. And what he always said-

Alex Roy

So you got a ride?

Alissa Walker

I did. I got to go through it. Yeah, on the opening night.

Alex Roy

I can’t believe they invited you. Don’t they know who they’re dealing with?

Alissa Walker

They knew. I think-

Alex Roy

Were you there-

Alissa Walker

I don’t think I’ll be invited back.

Alex Roy

Were you invited with a bunch of these like super crazy fan boys?

Alissa Walker

Well, it was a big party, so it was the journalists from all over the world. Yeah, tons of celebrities. I rode in a car with Casey Neistat, who wanted to do donuts in the parking lot. And it was a car, that was the other thing, it was a Tesla SUV. We all got there and thought we were going to be riding in this like train because it was supposed to be public transportation that you would go through the tunnel in or these minivan-looking 18 passenger Teslas they were going to make. But it wasn’t there and it wasn’t on this like electric shuttle, it was really just driving a car through a tunnel.

So they sold that idea to Vegas, to the convention bureau that runs the Convention Center and they paid the Boring Company money, a lot of money, $50 million, because it’s part of the Convention Center expansion. If you’ve ever been to Vegas to see that or anything else like that, Convention Center is very big and they just made it a lot bigger. It goes all the way to Las Vegas Boulevard now. So it’s kind of a hike if you’re walking through the whole Convention Center. They wanted to build a transportation system to get people from one side to the other, so they decided a tunnel that goes underneath it is the best solution.

But it literally just has cars, it literally just has Teslas. So you get in a Tesla and you drive through a tunnel that’s like less than two miles and then you get out of the car.

Alex Roy

Let me just get this straight. So the idea is that you’d be in one… I’ve been to the CS, Convention Center, many times. It’s a terrible place. And you would see… is that you would go to one hall at the North Hall and then you would take an elevator down into a basement, get into a car, and then that car would autonomously go through the tunnel to the other end.

Alissa Walker

They said it can’t operate autonomously yet. So for now, there’ll be drivers for at least the foreseeable future. They said it’s not allowed to be autonomous yet.

Alex Roy

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to have a train, like a subway.

Alissa Walker

People movers are big in Vegas. It could have been pretty easy to do that or just maybe put a bunch of bikes and scooters upstairs and you could just kind of scoot around.

Alex Roy

Your throughput, may throughput-

Alissa Walker

Moving sidewalk.

Alex Roy

Yeah. Actually a moving sidewalk would be great. All right. So the pro here is that it sounds cool to people who don’t know anything about transportation, right? Is that the only pro? There’s another pro, is there?

Alissa Walker

I think Vegas, and we can talk about Miami in a minute, but they are so desperate to have this draw. They want this Elon Musk brand to be part of their Convention Center, especially around CES, which has become one of their biggest things that they have in the city. So they want to make this kind of improvement for that audience, because they get tons of attention out of it as we’ve seen with journalists who write about these things.

Alex Roy

Look, you’ve been to CES, we both know that going from one hall to another is a big hassle, although walking seems to be the best solution. If you wanted to solve transportation at CES, it seems like you’d want to come up with a solution to get people from the Convention Center to one of the other hotels. What’s the name of the other hotel? It’s behind the-

Alissa Walker

I mean, there are so many they have for events now.

Alex Roy

It’s behind the Venetian.

Alissa Walker

Yeah, there are.

Alex Roy

Behind the Venetian is the basement, the entrepreneur, startup section, and to get there, that’s really sucks. If you take an Uber, you have to walk to the parking lot, which is halfway to your destination, and that’s not a solved problem. Then also the monorail, which if you’re near it is quite good, is on one side of the strip and not on the other.

Alissa Walker

And the Elon Musk solution to get from one side of the Convention Center to the other could have made the monorail be the mid point, the monorail station, but they didn’t.

Alex Roy

Yeah. You know something? Yeah. This is a classic example of hype totally smothering real solutions. Okay. Let’s move on to the next one. That’s crazy. I mean, who’s got more common sense about transportation, the guys who write the Simpsons, because they had a whole monorail episode.

Alissa Walker

It’s classic and it’s doing that same thing with the mayor of Miami who he’s making jokes on Twitter and then Elon shows up, then they have a very serious conversation about digging a tunnel in Miami, which is not like digging a tunnel in Las Vegas.

Alex Roy

Well, the main thing is, the neighborhood that they were referring to was Brickell and I live in Brickell. Brooklyn has a lot of ingress and egress points, but what’s interesting about Brickell is that the Miami river is the Northern border of it and there are multiple bridges and those bridges sometimes open up until that boats go past. And I imagine that there are people who think that they need a tunnel to get underneath the water when the bridges go up. In my experience in two months, so you’ll wait three minutes, big deal, but you could not pay me to drive a car with my daughter in it into a tunnel in Miami. There’s no amount of money. Just forget it. I guess he casts a big glow, Musk. He casts a big glow.

Alissa Walker

I mean, this is all we are trying to do right now as these mayors are trying to lure rich people who are unhappy with their lives during the pandemic and try to convince them that living somewhere else would be better. They’re all trying the same thing, so this… My mayor is-

Alex Roy

I will give props to the-

Alissa Walker

He’s really-

Alex Roy

I’ll give props. He’s A game. You know something? A lot of people from New York have come down here and bring with us our… I guess our ignorance of cities where things sometimes work. It feels safer to ride a bicycle here than it does in New York, but the areas where it’s safer aren’t always connected by protected bike lanes.

Alissa Walker

If he wanted the traffic to be better on that bridge, he could build some more bike lanes. But I don’t know, he might want to…

Alex Roy

We need more protected bike lanes in general. But yeah, that’s it, we’ll get to that in our time. Okay. We’re going on to gondolas. I wanted to talk about funiculars. I know how to pronounce it in French, but I… The funicular is one of my favorite mobility devices. Pittsburgh has one.

Alissa Walker

We have one.

Alex Roy

You do? Wait, where’s the LA funicular?

Alissa Walker

It’s in Downtown.

Alex Roy

What?

Alissa Walker

Yeah, it’s called Angels Flight.

Alex Roy

Where does it go?

Alissa Walker

Just up a hill. It was a place where it was-

Alex Roy

How big is the hill?

Alissa Walker

It’s pretty big. There’s Grand Central Market at the bottom and it was where all these Victorian houses, this big, old neighborhood was 100 years ago, so people would use it to get down to the market or work or the street car that was down there. That’s a pretty big Hill. I mean, it’s like significant elevation gain, but- [crosstalk 00:30:54]

Alex Roy

I was born in LA and this hill was hidden from me. I can’t-

Alissa Walker

Have you seen the movie 500 Days of Summer? It’s on that hill, where he sits on the bench. So it’s a pretty big hill.

Alex Roy

I loosely remember that. All right. So, but we’re talking about gondolas, which is the same thing, but suspended. Funicular by definition is on rails, correct?

Alissa Walker

Yeah. On rail, inclined. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:31:16]

Alex Roy

And a gondola is suspended like a ski lift?

Alissa Walker

Yeah. I didn’t understand the difference until I wrote about it. But yes, the gondola is… it’s not a Venetian type of gondola.

Alex Roy

So tell us about this gondola suggestion for LA, which to me is just… Go ahead.

Alissa Walker

There’s actually two. So there’s one that would go from Union Station to Dodger Stadium. There’s another that they’re trying to propose for Griffith Park so people can the Hollywood sign without bothering people too much because-

Alex Roy

That’s seems nice.

Alissa Walker

… a lot of the neighbors… well, the neighbors don’t want people coming and they don’t want a gondola in the park either, so they’re mad on both accounts. But we’ll just talk about the Dodger Stadium one, because that one actually has money behind it and they’re in the scoping part of it where they’re they have released the plans and have let everybody chime in about it. Frank McCourt, who used to own the Dodgers… Doesn’t own the team anymore, but owns the parking lots that surround the stadium, so if you can imagine how wealthy he is. Dodger stadium kind of sits in this… it says it’s Chavez Ravine, but it’s kind of this little plateau that is not again like not too hard to walk up to if you need to.

I walk to the games there, a lot of people do, a lot of people definitely walk down from the games there. It’s less than two miles from a lot of major transit and it’s probably like a 20-minute walk from the closest rail line station. So it’s not that bad. But to make it easier to get up there, they’re proposing this gondola which would… They’re trying to make a case that it would take cars off the road. A lot of people do take what’s called the Dodger Express to the games. You go to Union Station, they put you on a bus and they put you on dedicated bus lanes for the game that go right up to the stadium. When you’re ready to go, you do it in reverse.

It’s free. They do it as part of like a traffic reduction program to try to keep cars and pollution away from the stadium during game days. So that works pretty well and they move a significant amount of people on these buses. But the gondola would actually probably move less people than buses do now.

Alex Roy

Right. And you got to build the infrastructure for it, right?

Alissa Walker

Yeah. Well, the cool thing about a gondola, why it might work in a place like Griffith Park, is that the… You’ve seen in all these European ski towns, people use them for transportation to get from one town to another in some places. They have a very light touch on the environment and you just put a nice little pole down and you probably don’t have to put another one down for pretty far distance. So I could see a beam, something that tourists would like and something that would be a nice way to get up to your hiking trailers. It’s also in big park Dodger Stadium, so you could go up there and hike.

But putting it at a place like a stadium, it doesn’t really make any sense because a lot of people are going to want to go there at one time and you can’t put extra people in the pods. I mean, you have a set number of people that you can load up. Otherwise, you’ve got like a Disneyland situation where everybody’s waiting in line for a really long time, and you could-

Alex Roy

And everyone is stuck in the pods.

Alissa Walker

… and you could’ve just walk up there in 20 minutes. So I failed to see why we would do this and spend money to do this, although it’s all privately funded by Frank McCourt who just wants to pay for. I guess eventually you could put other things up there that people might want to take the gondola to and start developing the parking lot, but-

Alex Roy

Is there a train that goes to the stadium?

Alissa Walker

The closest train is about 20-minute walk away, and then Union Station is the big hub. You could walk from there, but you could take the Dodger Express, the bus, but it’s a little bit further way. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Alex Roy

To me, it always seems that if we would just have really great trains, we would relieve traffic because a lot of people would just prefer to take the train and that would just relieve a lot of travelers-

Alissa Walker

Yeah. And a lot of people do. Yeah. A lot of people see that this is so convenient when you get that little ride on the bus at the end. A lot of people do take transit and take transit for their whole trip to go to Dodger Stadium games. So it’s actually working really well to just have our buses in concert with our existing rail system.

Alex Roy

Does the stadium have a dedicated pickup and drop location for ride hail.

Alissa Walker

They do, and that’s one of the problems actually. They’re trying to discourage people from using it because it was getting so backed up that it was blocking the buses being able to get into the same area. But yeah, they had to reconfigure the whole… I mean, the parking lot is kind of useless now, right? They have this giant parking lot with like 12… I think it’s 16,000 spaces and like 12 Dodger Stadiums can fit in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, if you think about how big it is.

Alex Roy

Wow!

Alissa Walker

I mean, we’re using it now for a vaccination clinic. Yeah.

Alex Roy

Wow!

Alissa Walker

So yes, turn it into something else, but try to incentivize the right ways to get there, which would just be maybe really nice sidewalks to be able to walk up that hill for people who need to, or electric bike share or something, I don’t know. It’s not that bad of a walk.

Alex Roy

It’s a really reasonably priced high throughput thing, which is usually called a train, generally makes… You can call it a lot of other things, but generally it’s called a train. Suddenly, every other mode works better. Isn’t it amazing?

Alissa Walker

Yeah.

Alex Roy

Do you have any experience or do you know anything about this idea of having a train go from LA to Las Vegas?

Alissa Walker

Yeah. So where are we at with that? We have at least one part that Virgin said they were going to build, but not all the way here. It was going to end in Victorville, I think, which is just in the hot desert just on the other side of the-

Alex Roy

Why?

Alissa Walker

Because I think with rail, you try to build it in segments where you’ve got buy-in and you’ve got money and you’ve got the property rights. So I think it’s the same approach to our high-speed rail in the state of California, where they’re just building the section that’s easiest to build right now and then you keep going from there. I also think that they’re hoping that last little part can be filled in by California high-speed rail, so if the Victorville to Los Angeles segment is done by someone else.

Alex Roy

This sounds like a dead end. Okay. All right.

Alissa Walker

But who doesn’t want to go to Victorville to go to Vegas?

Alex Roy

Did you read this Farhad Manjoo op-ed in the New York Times the other day where he said, “Electric cars are nice, but they don’t solve the fact that they’re still cars.”

Alissa Walker

The last part of his tweet was, “I’m writing about someone that no one talks about.” And I would like to say that that’s all I talk about and I’ve been talking about it and writing about it for like five years. And I think a lot of other people were telling him not to write.

Alex Roy

So there’s a reason I asked you, is because this is a classy example of hype, the hype swamping real conversations around topics that are often going back a long time, and kind of mainstream media is just discovering that the solutions are out there.

Alissa Walker

Yeah, I guess that’s good. I mean, I’m happy that he continues to write pieces based on what we talked about on Twitter like four years ago. But I think we’re so in this moment where we could actually make some really good decisions and we have some people who I think… [inaudible 00:39:25] actually said almost the exact same thing on the campaign trail. So we have people that might be able to do something about it. So maybe it’s good if everybody just says it as many times as possible.

Alex Roy

You talked about a lot of bad ideas. Hey, sum up what cities should be doing and what would be the right approach to deploying autonomous vehicles.

Alissa Walker

So I wrote about an idea from a company called Zoox a few weeks ago, which is, they’re leading with this vehicle that looks different than a car that’s not a car. It’s the same as those robotic shuttles, like easy mile that we’ve seen. I rode in one in Downtown Vegas and at some other… these types of shows where you go to and there’s one autonomous vehicle that you can ride in. But the low speed shuttle from one place to another, perhaps something like Dodger Stadium, I don’t know, I can see that as a good application.

But why I really liked what Zoox was doing was that it doesn’t have a steering wheel, it doesn’t have any kind of the looks or feelings of a car, and it was the first time that I saw a vehicle that was autonomous that I was like, “That’s for me and my kids.” Because the biggest problem that I face is that I to get rid of my car, but I had for many years… I didn’t have a car for a very long time in Los Angeles, then I got a car when I had kids, I have two small kids, and now I want to get rid of the car again, but there’s always those few instances where you have like the stroller and you can’t quite get home and the train doesn’t get all the way to your home.

Or you have an older parent who is in a wheelchair or something like that. And this has this big wide floor that you can kind of roll anything into and secure it and then you also have four seats that kind of face each other, like living room style. And if an autonomous vehicle company kind of did some kind of subscription service where they said, “This is for families, this is for people with mobility challenges in the city where they just need to go short distance but they might not have a car seat or they might… ” That’s the biggest thing. If you could just have like a car seats in every vehicle, every taxi or whatever, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

But I like the idea of having some kind of service like that tat was just for families. I guess it doesn’t really have to be autonomous, but this vehicle itself really seemed to have thought of everything of those challenges. And I guess you save space or something by not having a driver and it having the robot take care of certain things. That was kind of my dream that I thought of recently.

Alex Roy

Autonomous vehicles in general, okay, what should companies avoid saying and doing the same way that Google came into Toronto the wrong way? What is the messaging that autonomous vehicle companies need to use to attract riders?

Alissa Walker

That’s a- [crosstalk 00:42:32]

Alex Roy

You want me to tell you my answer?

Alissa Walker

Tell me. Yeah.

Alex Roy

I’ll tell you what they shouldn’t use. They should not use, “You don’t need to own a car ever again, you never will.” I think people need to want to-

Alissa Walker

They do not say that?

Alex Roy

No. I think what they need to say is, “Here is a more affordable option that’s safer than what you got and makes your life easier.” Because I think there’s an element of people out there who they don’t want to be told what to do, they want to be suggested something better than what they’ve got. It’s a carrot versus than a stick. That’s what I think. And I think that there’ll be an equilibrium point that sorts itself out. That’s my concern about messaging. What do you think? Am I crazy?

Alissa Walker

I think that’s good, but how do you make the case that it has to be autonomous? Because I think that that is… I was drawn to the form of the vehicle. But you’re right, testing that… there’s already been some weird little crashes. The Vegas one crashed on the first day, I think. It was like a slow motion crash. It was almost funny, there was a garbage truck. But I wonder, how do you make the case that it has to be autonomous?

Alex Roy

Actually, and me, I’m a super big driving enthusiast. It’s no secret. It’s that I can admit that my once amazing driving skills are in decline. There’s a lot of people out there who cannot admit it. As a dad, I want a ride which is reliable, safe, and convenient. Tick all those boxes and I’m in it. And those boxes are better ticked by an autonomous vehicle than by many of the drivers I’ve had transport me and my child. I don’t want to have to park and I don’t have to worry about safety. So for me, an autonomous hail vehicle solves both of those, whereas a lot of the ride hail vehicles I’ve taken, they don’t always show up, the ETAs are weird, I don’t feel safe in the cars, and during COVID times, a little…

Alissa Walker

That’s a great selling point. I mean, I think that if they could capitalize on pandemics, that would probably be great marketing. Yeah, I think that with the labor issues too that we’re facing here, we just passed something called prop 22 in California where now ride hailing drivers have no rights really and Uber and Lyft can basically make up the rules about what types of benefits they have and what kind of hours they have to work and how much they get paid. So it’s almost as if they are trying to put themselves on an autonomous path. Uber just got rid of it’s autonomous driving department.

So it’s very unclear what their arguments are for ride hailing in the future, because it’s like, are you just trying to say that nobody should be able to make fair money doing this anymore because you’ve certainly made a good argument for it?

Alex Roy

I think there’s a broader societal question about a living wage which predates and is bigger than vehicles. But let me ask you about the other half of autonomous vehicles, which is the delivery portion. The garbage truck problem you cite about safety exists for any commercial vehicle.

Alissa Walker

Oh, yeah.

Alex Roy

And solving safety and reliability for that is the other half of making our streets better. That’s how I came around from being Mr. Driving, no one’s going to take my car, no one’s going to take my wheel, to being like, you know something? These things can coexist. Am I crazy? I don’t think I’m crazy.

Alissa Walker

Well, what I said before too about rightsizing vehicles, that would solve a lot of the problems just right off the bat, because a lot of the vehicles, the fleets that we use, government fleets, they’re just too big for our streets, especially the streets that we want. We want narrower streets, we want streets where people feel welcome to walk and bike and not have like five or six lanes of vehicular traffic like we have in LA. So we have to think about some of the solutions that we’ve seen here. They have these smaller trash trucks and even smaller fire engines that are actually better for these smaller streets and they’re electric and they’re so cute and everything.

But I think, yes, if all those things can be carried out in a way that we’re safer and more efficient, predictable, that’s my big thing. Especially with the delivery vehicles, they’re so unpredictable. You step into the street and you’re like, “Whoa!” And they don’t know where to park, they don’t know what they’re doing. But that too is about giving up more curved space and giving up more parking space to safely have unloading, loading, little places to put your trash actually, not on the sidewalk.

Alex Roy

I mean, my pet peeve is vehicles of any type parked in the bike lane and what that does to safety. And I’ve seen it go south and that is… You know something? Another reason I believe in autonomous vehicles. Anyway,-

Alissa Walker

Yeah, follow the rules.

Alex Roy

Yeah, follow the rules. It lets you follow the rules. Coming from me, that’s crazy.

Alissa Walker is based in LA. She’s the urbanism editor for Curbed. Alissa, thank you so much. You may not be a professor, but you are to me.

Alissa Walker

That means so much. Thank you, Alex.

Alex Roy

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please connect with us on social. We’re on Twitter @NoParkingPod. And I’m everywhere on social @AlexRoy144. And please share No Parking with a friend, like us, subscribe, give us five star reviews wherever you listen to your podcasts. This show is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group, and my awesome friend, Megan Harris, is our producer. 

Until next time, I’m Alex Roy, and this is the No Parking Podcast.