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Flying cars must make way for the real future of transportation

Elon Musk and other Silicon Valley–style futurists would like you to believe that the future of transportation holds flying cars, conveyor-belt tunnels for high-speed vehicles, and completely self-driving cars. All of these innovations are designed to free drivers from driving and the annoyance of getting stuck in traffic.

While those innovations may sound appealing, McGill researchers argued a few months ago in a paper published in Futures that this approach fundamentally distorts the problem of congestion and traffic safety. Instead of imagining a future with more advanced cars, they argue that we need to imagine a future with no cars at all, or at least one where reliance on cars is dramatically reduced.

Paris Marx, the paper’s first author, earned his master’s in urban geography from McGill and has gone on to host the popular podcast Tech Won’t Save Us. Their first book, Road to Nowhere, came out in July 2022 and expands on ideas of a car-free future. Kevin Manaugh, professor of geography at McGill, advised Marx and co-authored the Futures article. 

During an interview with The McGill Tribune, Manaugh explained how the ‘flying cars’ approach, which treats urban infrastructure improvement as a purely technological issue, fails to consider the full scope and complexities of modern cities. 

“We’ve defined transport as a technical problem. And then these technical solutions seemed like the only way to solve them,” Manaugh said. 

The technical solutions that Silicon Valley CEOs come up with may be exciting, especially in the case of flying cars or Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which promises to drill below-ground tunnels that could shoot cars forward at speeds of up to 240 kilometres per hour. 

“I think people are inspired or intrigued by these kinds of futuristic types of things, and I think we, as a culture or society, are impressed by these flashy new things,” Manaugh said. 

But getting caught up in an extravagant idea can lead entrepreneurs to solve problems in ways that don’t address underlying causes like faulty urban planning, inequitable zoning laws, and an over-reliance on cars instead of more ecological modes of transportation such as walking or biking. 

“You’re not taking into account how this thing scales, you’re not taking into account the number of people who can be served by this, and you’re not really reducing congestion because you’re just making another thing that people can use—but it doesn’t deal with the space issue at all,” Manaugh explained. 

In order to enact real change, the authors argue, society has to fundamentally reevaluate the role of cars in cities. 

“When you’re walking around, or even in your car for that matter—if you’re experiencing the city, imagine just how many decisions have been made to prioritize this mode of transport,” Manaugh said. “Our campus is an exception, but as soon as you cross over into Sherbrooke, you’ve got multiple lanes of traffic, there’s all this space for cars, there’s parking garages. And that’s space that can be doing something much more important or productive.”

Cars are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. But as history shows, it’s more than possible to build cities around different modes of transportation. 

“For literally thousands and thousands of years, humans built really beautiful civilizations and cities where the only way of getting around was by human or animal power,” Manaugh said. 

One way to work towards a world where the car’s role is reduced in cities is to imagine transportation as more than a technical pursuit. 

“I think there’s other ways to think about it—as a social issue, or as an equity issue,” Manaugh said. “If you define the problem as not everyone can access what they need, you might not start thinking about how we need new vehicles. You might start thinking about it as we need to redesign how we allow land uses to be put next to each other, or we might realize it’s actually a housing affordability question more so than a fancy new vehicle question.”

Re-envisioning transportation as a social, health, or justice issue allows researchers, entrepreneurs, and governments to prioritize genuinely innovative approaches, instead of just updating our existing cars with each new Silicon Valley fad. 

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