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Self-driving cars are on a collision course with our crappy cities

Self-driving cars are on a collision course with our crappy cities


‘Cities need to play an active role in this. How aggressive it is depends on the city.’

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Photo by Max Jeffrey / The Verge

The self-driving cars are coming, and US cities are totally unprepared for the radical changes that will accompany them. Their roads are crumbling, their public transportation services are out-of-date and over-capacity, and their car traffic is among the worst in the world. Autonomous vehicles are supposed to be a panacea for mobility, but if they arrive to the status quo in our major metropolises, their promised benefits may never be realized.

A new crop of research released this week underscores some salient facts about our increasingly automated future: self-driving cars will reshape the way our cities look and feel; the services through which most of us will experience this technology, ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, are shockingly creating more traffic problems than they are curing; and too many cities are failing to plan for this fast-approaching future.

“Cities need to play an active role in this.”

The coming onslaught of driverless cars will require dramatic changes to our streetscape, including new traffic management strategies and a reevaluation of curb and other parking spaces, according to a new report by the Regional Plan Association. But they will only do so if city officials can muster up the courage to transfer space traditionally allocated for cars to high-occupancy transit and autonomous vehicles. Even an act as simple as repainting lane markings and replacing worn out signage will help improve self-driving cars’ ability to “see” their surroundings.

There’s an enormous opportunity to correct the mistakes made during the Age of the Automobile, when cities were carved up in the interest of creating more space for cars. It will need to happen in the reverse: roads need to narrow, parking spaces need to be eliminated, and cars need to increasingly become better integrated into the tapestry of transportation. “Cities need to play an active role in this,” said Rich Barone, vice president for transportation at the RPA. “How aggressive it is depends on the city.”

In a compelling graphic, RPA lays out how streets will morph and change over the course of the next several decades. Between 2017–2022, semi-autonomous vehicles will slowly trickle into our cities through services like Uber, Lyft, and private microtransit like Ford’s Chariot. The next five years will see self-driving trucks platooning along highways while the cost of ride-sharing services plummet, thanks to autonomous technology. (Sorry, drivers.) Meanwhile, city-licensed taxis will also begin to adopt driverless features, and new loading zones along the curb will appear for on-demand transportation and delivery purposes.

“The years leading up to 2040 will likely feature the most radical changes.”

The years leading up to 2040 will likely feature the most radical changes, RPA says. Autonomous technology will become more sophisticated, allowing connected cars to “talk” with other vehicles and infrastructure using wireless, V2X communication. Subsequently, cars will require less space on the road, freeing up real estate for bikes lanes, bus lanes, housing, and open spaces. Charging stations will spring up alongside the curb as electric vehicle adoption skyrockets. Roads will become narrower and traffic signals will vanish as autonomous cars, shuttles, and buses blend and interweave in a delicate, syncopated ballet of technological harmony.

Of course, this is the rosy, utopian vision about the way things will go. There are so many “ifs” built into this thought experiment that it’s difficult to imagine these scenarios not collapsing into chaos. Autonomous cars will completely change our cities if local officials plan accordingly, if cities re-invest in building robust transit networks, and if the technology works exactly as these companies promise. If these things don’t happen, then we could be in for a lot of confusion.

As things stand now, cities are not planning for the arrival of autonomous cars. According to the National League of Cities’ research, only 6 percent of the US’s largest cities’ transportation plans include any language on the potential effect of driverless technology on mobility. This will need to change to make fully autonomous vehicles feasible. Twenty percent of plans include “road diets” or other efforts to reduce road capacity. And a mere 3 percent of plans take into account ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, despite the fact that they operate in a vast majority of large cities.

The majority of these plans, which project outcomes decades into the future, focus almost exclusively on the problem of automobile congestion. The most popular solution? Build more roads for single-occupancy vehicles.

To be sure, traffic congestion is serious problem. It saps our spirits, snatches away our hard-earned dollars, and kills our bodies and our souls. And rather than helping reduce congestion, new technology like Uber and Lyft are unfortunate contributors to this ongoing scourge. A new national report by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that ride-hailing apps have only caused a slight decrease in vehicle ownership — the stated goal of both Uber and Lyft. Meanwhile, as people use these apps more, they are using public transportation less. Many trips that could be made by foot, bicycle, or via public transit are now made by ride-hailing services.

“Ride-hailing is currently likely to contribute to growth in vehicle miles traveled.”

This is causing more congestion. “Ride-hailing is currently likely to contribute to growth in vehicle miles traveled in the major cities represented in this study,” the report authors wrote.

Transit advocates have held out hope that Uber and Lyft could be complementary to public transportation like buses and subways, but the study found that while some people reported using commuter rail more, “the net effect across the entire population was an overall reduction in public transit use and a shift towards lower occupancy vehicles (i.e. more cars).” This is bad.

As Uber and Lyft begin to integrate self-driving cars into their fleet, fares are expected to plummet, which could lead to a mass migration from transit to private app-based services. The lead author of the UC Davis study, Regina Clewlow, outlines what’s at stake:

The broader implications of this shift in travel choice are critical. Cities are grappling with how to plan for the potential introduction of autonomous vehicles, which many believe will be deployed through shared services, not to mention the ever-rising impacts of the transportation sector on energy use and emissions. As of 2016, transportation surpassed the power sector as the largest contributor to the U.S. climate problem.

Many believe that sharing vehicles can help address our growing transportation woes — however, this research shows that sharing vehicles is not enough. We will likely need to foster more dense development patterns that can minimize vehicle miles traveled through walkable and bike-friendly neighborhoods, continue to invest in mass transit, and facilitate shared rides in shared vehicles through pricing or incentives.

“That private ownership will cease or become rare is wishful thinking.”

Sharing is caring, we’re told, but it’s no guarantee that most people will choose to ditch their personal vehicles for shared, autonomous cars. In the latest issue of Thinking Highways, mobility experts Bern Grush and Blair Schlecter cast a skeptical eye on the ownership question, concluding, “That private ownership will cease or become rare is wishful thinking — at least for the next half-century and for any country whose government will not ban ownership.”

It’s a surprising conclusion, especially considering most experts, Grush included, would prefer a world where shared autonomous vehicles win out over individually owned ones. But the gap between what environmentalists and planners want for the future — vehicles that are automated, connected, electric, and shared — and what most Americans want — vehicles that are comfortable, affordable, fast, and instantly available — could be impossible to bridge.