I can’t rightly argue with any of the points made by Stephanie Braun at the Ladders blog when she says self-driving cars could open up a lot of growth potential for worker productivity.

What I can do, though is take issue with the premise.

Self-driving cars can, as she says free up brain space and allow you to sleep more because you’re not actively driving and don’t need need to be watching the road.

Both of those advantages can also be found by using public transportation. I know because for almost all of my career when I wasn’t working from home I was taking the Metra from the western suburbs of Chicago into the city for work. I’ve written countless blog posts (both personal and professional) and freelance pieces, answered and sent emails and even wrote, scheduled and managed client social content publishing.

On the less productive end of the scale, I’ve also watched movies, read books and napped on plenty of occasions.

Beyond the simple fact that self-driving cars is a technology that’s not yet ready for mass deployment while mass transit is available now, there are a number of reasons to emphasize the latter over the former.

Scale and Efficiency

Using the example I’m most familiar with, the bilevel “gallery cars” used by the Metra Rail system in the Chicagoland area each carry between 155 and 169 passengers each. Let’s average that out at 160 passengers. And let’s say each car is 65 feet long.

The average SUV – the car model now preferred by auto manufacturers who aren’t seeing the profits from mid-sized cars, is 17 feet long and carries an average of one passenger.

Let’s use some fuzzy math to break that down along a standard 65 feet of infrastructure space:

  • Train: 165 passengers per 65 feet of rail line
  • Car: 4 passengers per 65 feet of highway

There are 463.04 miles of rail line currently being used by Metra for its various lines in and out of Chicago while, as of the 1990s, there were 19,800 miles of expressways, highways and feeder streets in the area.


  • Roads required 41 times the space to move the same number of people. That’s going to hold true for driverless cars just as much as it does now.
  • There’s 43 times more commuter-centric road (meaning that doesn’t count surface streets) in the Chicagoland area than there is rail line.
  • Roughly 80% of Chicago area commuters drive for their commutes

And that’s not even addressing the environmental problems caused not only by the cars themselves but by the construction and maintenance of those highways and expressways. Or the fact that public transportation is safer in almost every conceivable fashion than automobiles. In short, there’s no good environmental or resource-based case to be made for maintaining a car-centric infrastructure.

Point #2: Car Ownership is Discriminatory

One of the reasons a number of recent studies have found Millennials don’t hold the same view of car ownership as previous generations is similar to why other low-income individuals and families don’t: It’s expensive. Not only is the car itself a significant expense, but maintenance, insurance and various city regulations such as license plate stickers and more increase the cost even more.

Despite the common media narrative of young people just ordering an Uber instead of waiting for the bus, that’s not a viable option for many individuals and why car ownership is seen as the key to job opportunities. Cities, including Chicago, haven’t done enough to invest in maintaining public transit options to vast swaths of the city that aren’t as well off as others. Infrequent buses, long walks to and from light rail and other issues make even what’s available a difficult proposition.

A recent op-ed on TheHill.com made the following statement:

The fundamental problem is that big-box transit — moving people in 60-passenger buses, 450-passenger light-rail trains or 1,500-passenger heavy-rail or commuter-rail trains — no longer works in American cities. Such transit made sense a century ago when most jobs were in downtowns surrounded by dense residential areas. But today only New York City comes close to looking like that.

He’s right, even while he’s wrong.

The problem isn’t with the public transportation system designed a century ago, no matter how hard the Koch Brothers may want people believe so. It’s with the highway system designed 70 years ago. It’s that system that broke up communities (often across racial or socioeconomic lines) and which has wreaked havoc on the environment. Plus, if we’re going to start with the premise that people no longer need (at the same volume they did decades ago) to come to work in a central location, than *all* aspects of the transportation system need to be rethought. We can’t assume cars are the better solution by default.

There is still the issue of how to address the “last mile” problem with public transit. Not everyone can get door-to-door delivery and pick-up. But if we as a general public decided it was more advantageous in the long-term to invest in public infrastructure that transports people at scale, that would result in more bus routes, more local light rail systems and other options, all of which bring it that much closer.

Productivity Is Public Transportation

There are many jobs where public transportation won’t matter a whit when it comes to increasing productivity. A home health care worker may not be able to get much of their job done on the bus, at least not as much as a knowledge economy worker. It might, though, increase their overall job satisfaction and reduce some prohibitive expenses, and allow a dedicated individual to stay in that job longer because they don’t have to take another one simply because it pays better, despite it being less satisfying.

Not only that, but because public transportation is, as cited above, the safer and more environmentally-friendly option, everyone’s health is improved and health is a key factor contributing to productivity.

Finally, as much as I regularly complain about delays on the train, it’s far more reliable in terms of scheduling than commuting via car. From where I live in the suburbs, the train ride itself is 50 minutes from station to station. Driving that same distance would, during Chicago’s rush hour (which runs from 5am to 9pm) cost me upwards of two hours in each direction.

None of these arguments are new. The conversation reminds me of a scene from the 1992 Cameron Crowe movie Singles. Steve, played by Campbell Scott, has staked his career on a proposal for a “super train” that will take cars off Seattle’s congested streets. When he makes his pitch to the mayor, he’s reminded simply that “people love their cars.”

That may be true, but a commitment to the common good, including adequate funding and planning, may be enough to overcome that feeling. Based on the productivity increases that may be realized, it’s in the best interests of the business community as a whole to get behind such as shift as well.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.