Talking Transit: How will automated cars alter the urban environment? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking Transit: How will automated cars alter the urban environment?

Flickr user Ed and Eddie (cc).

Self-driving cars from companies like Google could radically alter our urban environment.

Published monthly, MPC’s Talking Transit provides updates about transit-related activities around the world.

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Automated cars from companies like Google and BMW are only five to ten years away from being ready for mainstream use, according to some estimates. These cars could radically change the way we get around, but how will they affect the cities we live in?

What automated cars might mean for cities

Imagine a future in which automated automobiles circulate around our cities, allowing people, including the young, old and disabled, easy access to mobility from any point to any other point. Operating without a driver and using electricity for power, the autonomous vehicle could be cheap to operate and environmentally friendly. Communicating with other vehicles on the road, it could increase the capacity of our highways. It could replace car ownership for many households.

These cars are still years away—there are significant technological gaps that must be overcome for them to be put into service on any sort of broad scale. But, if they’re ever implemented, these autonomous vehicles could radically alter the way our cities work, potentially increasing—or decreasing—the amount of driving people do, the provision of public transit and even the need for parking.

I gained some insight on these issues at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany that I’ll relate here (full disclosure: as part of the Media Travel Programme, the Forum covered the cost of my attending and traveling to the event). A longer and slightly modified version of this article was also posted on The Transport Politic.

Today, progress toward autonomous cars has accelerated, and companies from Google to BMW to Volvo suggest that they’ll be able to offer such vehicles relatively soon. They hope to offer the next phase of technological change in transportation, moving past car sharing offered by companies like Zipcar and cheaper taxis offered by companies like Uber.

The autonomous car would replace these services by removing drivers from the equation, thus vastly reducing labor costs. There could be a significant negative impact from this change, potentially eliminating tens of thousands of jobs around the country—a problem that cannot be glossed over.

There’s disagreement about how soon self-driving cars will come to market, though Google’s autonomous vehicle is already making the rounds, both literally and in the media. The fact that it has been tested on highways across California surely indicates that popular use of the technology isn’t far off—even if the experience of riding in the vehicles leaves something to be desired.

It’s hard not to believe that some sort of vehicular automation will be rolled out soon. “Autonomous cars are going to happen so fast that it almost doesn’t matter what you’re going to do between now and then,” Robin Chase, co-founded of Zipcar, told me in an interview at the Forum. She predicts a public rollout in the next five to 10 years.

But the question for our cities is how these autonomous cars will be introduced; will they simply replace today’s Uber drivers, or will they be owned by individuals? In an article in CityLab last year, Chase delved into this problem, arguing that individual ownership of self-driving vehicles would be destructive, increasing congestion and encouraging significant increases in car travel by people who order their vehicles to drop them off in front of stores, only to have the car circle the block for hours as they shop.

Alternatively, a world in which autonomous cars are shared, perhaps operated as Uber-like taxis or as some sort of publicly or cooperatively owned service, could have significant benefits for cities by reducing the need for parking, encouraging intermodal trips, and expanding mobility by providing lower-cost travel options.

Changes in the role of public transport

At the Forum, Uber’s David Plouffe argued that new mobility options complement existing public transport systems. Evidence from San Francisco, where technologically advanced mobility may be most instilled in the popular culture, suggests that there hasn’t been a dramatic negative effect on public transportation thus far.

As of December 2013, Uber was already providing 160,000 trips per week in the Bay Area, a number that has likely increased in the intervening period. Those trips, however, do not appear to have reduced transit ridership. Indeed, according to statistics from the American Public Transportation Association, ridership on buses and trains operated by all four of that region’s major transit operators increased between 2013 and 2014.

So perhaps Uber et al. are actually increasing ridership. Or maybe transit ridership is not increasing as quickly as it could given that metropolitan area’s relatively explosive population growth. It is probably too early to tell.

What is likely true is that the prices being charged for these taxi-like services are too high to attract most people out of public transportation for their daily trips. As Robin Chase told me, even the Uber shared-taxi service Uberpool, at “Five to seven dollars a trip, is still not what people can afford to get to work. Fourteen dollars a day, that’s not happening… and that’s [Uber’s] best case scenario!” At those prices, bus and train ridership is not likely to be dramatically affected.

On the other hand, Chase told me that she thinks that automated cars will dramatically change the equation for public transit services because of the much cheaper prices made possible when there’s no human labor involved. For Chase, “buses, shuttles, minivans, school buses [will be] all gone.” Because of the ability to substitute automated cars for these low-capacity transit modes, they will simply disappear from the options available in the urban environment as cities recognize the limited utility of their fixed schedules and inability to adapt to point-to-point demand. And she expects this change to come sooner rather than later.

When I asked her about how this would change the public sector’s role in transportation, she noted that she expected governments to switch from subsidizing service provision for all to providing vouchers for automated transportation for the poor, much in the same way that the government in the 1970s switched from building public housing to providing rent vouchers.

I raised the prospect that this would negatively affect poor peoples’ mobility, but Chase rejected my premise, arguing that lower-income people would be able to use “the same vehicles that people who can afford it are using… Would you prefer what we have today,” she asked me, where “only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”

It’s an interesting point, but it would require a very significant public role through subsidies if we’re to maintain mobility for low-income people who do not have access to their own automobiles. Are American cities ready to provide direct transportation subsidies for poor people to use self-driving cars? How would those subsidies work, and would people have access to unlimited trips and travel distances?

Chase’s vision—that low-capacity transit operating on fixed routes will be replaced by automated cars that allow point-to-point trips—has become a commonly cited argument among those who suggest that governments cease investment in public transportation. To them, why spend any public money on transportation if all our problems will be solved with driverless cars?

For her, “major, hard routes” like subways and elevated lines—and probably bus rapid transit, though she did not name it—would remain important even with the mass use of automated vehicles. The most heavily trafficked transit corridors, with more than 5,000 people moving per direction per hour, cannot be handled by automated vehicles alone. When operating in its own lanes and in a dedicated right of way, transit also has the potential to be quicker than automated vehicles.

So for dense urban neighborhoods and major job centers, public transit will likely remain a fact of life.

It’s also worth emphasizing that any advances in technology that provide for automated cars could also result in automated public transport vehicles, potentially saving significantly on the cost of operations by eliminating the need for driver labor (it could also reduce the cost of shipping by, for example, eliminating the need for truck drivers). Automated trains are already common for new subway and elevated rail systems, and some train lines in cities like Paris have been converted from driver to automated operation.

Buses moving around the city with no drivers could be more frequent because of reduced labor costs, and certain bus lines could probably be operated profitably. In other words, automobile automation could have a genuine competitor in automated public transport.

Implications for the urban environment

The mass adoption of automated cars could radically alter how the urban environment looks and works—particularly if, as Robin Chase suggests, they’re shared. The easy availability of cheap point-to-point transportation in which passengers are free to read, watch films or sleep while travelling around could increase the amount of time people are willing to travel each day, increasing overall vehicle use.

Automated cars could also devalue urban cores by making biking and walking, or waiting for transit, less appealing when a robotized car can arrive practically instantly at the touch of a button.

But Chase’s sense is that people “really enjoy clusters.” People like living and working near one another, and that has led to the renaissance many American central cities are experiencing today. Uber itself seems convinced of that fact; the company is planning a huge headquarters complex in the heart of San Francisco filled with walkable shops and restaurants and—intriguingly—directly adjacent to a light rail line. In its urban perspective, the complex is diametrically opposed to the suburban, generally car-oriented campuses under construction by fellow tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google.

Chase notes that the real benefits of the autonomous cars will actually be to the currently less-accessible parts of dense cities. Today, she argued to me, “If you live in Brooklyn, and you live three blocks from the A [Subway] train, your house is more valuable than if you live within 15 blocks of it,” but with the automated car, people there will feel like they are much closer to the Subway stop and therefore their home values will increase. But living in the exurbs, with no effective public transport available, will remain unappealing to many.

Perhaps her vision is optimistic, but I don’t disagree with her sense that most people won’t want to spend more time in a vehicle—automated or not—if they can help it, especially since they’ll be paying for the privilege.

And the automated vehicle, if widely adopted, could do wonders for the livability of urban neighborhoods by significantly reducing the need for parking. If every automated vehicle replaced 10 now privately owned cars, we would need one-tenth of the parking spaces at peoples’ residences. And retail, parks, offices and other attractions would need virtually no parking, since the automated cars could simply store themselves somewhere else—or serve other customers—once they’re finished being used.

Eliminating parking would reduce housing costs and free up space for other, more important needs. Those changes will undoubtedly improve quality of life for some, but we must remain vigilant to ensure that benefits are not only widely shared but also do not degrade the urban environment we’ve worked for decades to improve.


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