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When I started watching Curb Your Enthusiasm years ago, a detail of the show that stood out to me was its portrayal of Los Angeles driving—the amount of time it consumes and the inconveniences that result. In one early episode, Larry David gets in an argument with Jason Alexander about the location of a meeting they’ve scheduled—a “meeting about a meeting” that devolves into a shouting match about the effort required to drive to each other’s offices and who should have to make the trip. In any movie or show set in LA, the time and distance consumed by driving is implicit—and Curb wasn’t the first to call attention to that—but the tedium of constant car travel has less of a role in most stories than in a show that derives its narrative tension from relentlessly probing the contours of the mundane and escalating low-level anxiety. More importantly, though, Curb highlights the democratic nature of traffic: Even centi-millionaire Larry David has to deal with it, in basically the same way that any ordinary driver would (he can experience it in a nicer car but that’s about it). Short of traveling by helicopter, traffic remains a problem you can’t buy your way out of.
When driving is the only transportation choice, there are other indirect ways to avoid traffic: going fewer places; exercising more control over where you do go (and when you go there); living in a more convenient location. In theory, money could facilitate any of these, but in practice it doesn’t seem to, as Larry David’s scheduling headaches demonstrate. When driving is not the only option, on the other hand, it is often possible to pay more for a faster trip (usually in a car): If you live in New York and your default modes of travel are walking and riding the subway, cars can enable you to transcend those modes’ limitations by paying a higher price. Efforts to reduce car usage are worthwhile but the road network still defines the full scope of where it’s possible to go, so a car will almost always be a viable (if more expensive) option. Ridesharing apps like Uber have thus had a transformative impact on our relationship to urban space in the last decade, finishing what smartphones and Google Maps started: Navigating the spatial layout of a city becomes optional, with every destination a vector weighted by cost and travel time, independent of its geographical surroundings. From any given point, Uber opens up a wormhole to anywhere else; the journey from point A to point B is often completed without looking up from one’s phone and noticing what’s outside the car window. Places that were once difficult to get to are now just expensive to get to.
As the technology continues to develop, transportation becomes less a process of movement than its own independent space, in which we spend significant portions of time, largely decoupled from the ground we’re traversing. In Reyner Banham’s 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which the author wrote after moving to LA and learning to drive as a means of research, he writes, “The freeway system in its totality is now a single comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life…The freeway is where the Angelenos live a large part of their lives.” The burgeoning presence of self-driving cars promises to expand this space yet again, unifying the topological experience of the freeway with the post-spatial logic of ubiquitous, instantaneous Uber access. The more we find ourselves in constant motion, we might cease to think of any individual trip as something that even bears a cost, but rather as a zone that we pay rent to occupy indefinitely. At this point, the question of opting out of traffic starts to seem irrelevant—an existential violation that accompanies staying put for too long. Among the self-driving car’s many ambitious promises, getting us to our destinations faster is not one of them. Maybe we’ll forget about traffic altogether when we don’t have to watch the road anymore.
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The recent impact of self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco. “If the cars don’t quite know what to do, they’ll stop out of an abundance of caution.” Better than the alternative, I guess.
What people did after work before they had cellphones. “You would not call someone’s cellphone during the workday. Calling someone on their cell in that era was like how our parents thought about long-distance—only if it’s very important.”