Interview with Evan Ellis

Interview with Evan Ellis, 9th grader at Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, Texas:


Hi Mr. Levinson,
Thank you for helping out! My questions are composed below:

  • What do you see transportation looking like in a hundred years? Will cars have been replaced by other technologies, or will they have just evolved?

Let’s just say 100 years is a long time. At some point, if civilization continues to progress and the world doesn’t get a major setback (disease, AI, war, solar flares, asteroids, or whatever), we should see personal flying vehicles. The difficulties have been in control (most people aren’t pilots), cost to build (these have been expensive), and energy intensiveness (they use a lot of fuel). However the progress in manufacturing, automation and control, and batteries or equivalents over a century should be enough to make these common place. Now surface transport is still likely to be useful for most trips, but for longer trips personal aviation (flying cars for lack of a better catchphrase) should be more widely used than today, when general aviation is the exclusive domain of people with a lot of resources.

  • Are there any companies in particular that you might admire or agree with what they’re doing? Why do you support them?

There are some companies that are doing interesting work, but I try not to be a fanboy. Now companies doing work in electrification and automation are moving in the  right direction, but I don’t know who will be the winners. 10 years ago, the dominant cell phone handset makers were Nokia and RiM.

  • What is the ideal situation for city planning that would have the least traffic, pollution, and travel times? How might we get there?

The ideal city for one mode of technology is not ideal when the technology changes, and the ideal for some purposes is not ideal for others. There can only be one New York, for instance, because in a country the size of the US, there are only a small set of industries for whom the benefits of being in New York (close interaction with other firms, especially in finance, advertising, fashion, media, and a few others), while for other industries the costs (higher land costs, higher wages, more transport costs) don’t outweigh the benefits.

  • When do you see autopilot finally being implemented in almost every car? Will their be any market for conventional driving after that?

At the level of today’s Tesla AutoPilot, (or Cadillac SuperCruise)  it should be standard in new cars by 2025. It will take a couple of decades for almost all the existing cars to be retired. Conventional driving will eventually be prohibited (say 2040) on public roads at most times.

  • Many consumers say they are still nervous about trusting a self driving car with their lives. What is your response to them? Do you too feel worried about the safety of these cars?

The safety of AutoPilot is on par with humans now, it will get better while humans will get worse. If they aren’t safer, they won’t be permitted by regulators.

  • Have you heard about the Hyperloop project? If so, do you see it playing a role in future commutes? Is their anything that we can learn from it?

Yes, No, No.

The only benefit of Hyperloop is exciting students about transport, but the idea itself (whatever it is, the definition keeps changing) doesn’t scale well.

People have been talking about maglev for a long-time, there are a few test tracks, it has not proven itself better than conventional High-speed rail. People have been talking about evacuated tube transport for a long time. There have always been problems (maintaining the vacuum, what happens when you loose vacuum) and the costs of construction could never be justified by demand. Now maybe there will be a set of technological breakthroughs, I doubt it. We have now written 3 editions of “The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport” and have not mentioned Hyperloop at all. [Editors note, it is mentioned once in the most recent edition as an identifier of something Elon Musk has done.]

  • What are some ways an urban planner can work to alleviate traffic?

Designing cities for people, not for cars, will enable people to achieve their daily goals without a car. This is primarily through good (implemented) land use plans that put people near jobs and other activities, and within reach of a transit network that gets them to destinations.

  • What are the most realistic solutions to transportation? How can we work to achieve this?

Someone (maybe a planner) should implement road pricing. This would charge drivers for the full social costs, including the congestion they impose on others, the pollution from their tailpipe, and the risk of crashes they impose on others. The charge needs to be salient, that is drivers need to think that every additional minute they are traveling is costing money, like a taxi-meter in a taxicab.

This is the simplest thing we can do for urban transport to get towards more rational travel patterns. We can start with pricing for Electric Vehicles, which don’t pay gas taxes, and phase it in over time.

Providing safe networks for bike transportation, including exclusive and protected bikelanes on all major streets is also really important to get more people willing to travel by bike, which can work for a large number of trips.

Improving conditions for pedestrians is also important. Pedestrians are second-class citizens in most cities, even places like Manhattan. Many more places should be car-free zones, as in urban Europe.

  • How do you see city transportation evolving to fit our ever growing population?

I think in core cities, walking and biking (and e-bikes) will become more significant, and driving less significant. Most people in the US will continue to live in suburbs and rely on the car for decades to come, but cities, which had peaked in population in 1950 and declined for the next half-century, have started growing again, so there is some promise that the people who live there will demand a better environment.

  • Are their ways to incentivize travelers to leave their cars and use alternative forms of transport?

Road pricing (see above). The alternatives need to be better in most places as well, so the transition needs to be staged, it can’t be all at once.

  • How do you get to work every day? Why do you use this method? How long is your commute?

I walk (23 minutes from home to my office). I like walking, it builds in physical activity, it is cheaper, it is calmer, it lets me think. I walked when I was in Minnesota as well (30 minutes, uphill in the snow, in both directions).