Self-Driving Vehicles Could Make Traffic Worse

July 10, 2018

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being tested in many U.S. cities and have generated excitement from vehicle makers and even city mayors interested in confronting future traffic congestion.

However, AVs are not a panacea for traffic woes, according to a new study by Boston leaders, Boston Consulting Group and the World Economic Forum.

Ride-hailing services will increase with AVs widely deployed in cities, drawing people away from high-capacity public transit, the study found. In downtown Boston, the study found travel times would actually increase by 5.5 percent although travel times citywide would be reduced by 4 percent.

“That’s not bad, but it’s not a radical transformation either,” wrote the study’s authors, John Moavenzadah of the Forum and Nikolaus Lang of Boston Consulting.

The study asked 2,000 Boston area residents to choose among eight different transport options , including existing options and future options, such as autonomous personal car, autonomous shared taxi or autonomous minibus. The study found that mobility-on-demand services will grow from 7 percent of trips today to 30 percent in 2030,

The authors forecast that 87 percent of the future on-demand rides will be in AV cars, taxis or minibuses. “Whether they are opting for shared services or not, more and more people traveling short distances are likely to turn away from walking and mass transit, choosing on-demand vehicles instead,” the study said.

In the Boston area, the authors predicted a slight decline in public transport use. In the city limits of Boston, mass transit use would drop from 47 percent of trips now to 33 percent by 2030.

The authors recommended that cities create occupancy-based pricing schemes, convert on-street parking to vehicle, bike or pick-up lanes; and dedicate lanes for autonomous vehicles. Pricing schemes might charge a higher fee for single occupancy rides to discourage riding alone.

In my view, cities have been fighting single occupant vehicles for decades. AVs aren’t going to automatically reduce this concern. If Ford and other car makers set up subscription models (instead of ownership) for use of future AV cars, how will that process alone prevent the single-occupant vehicle?

The irony with the Boston example is that the study came out just one week after the city allowed nuTonomy to expand AV tests from the Seaport District to the entire city.

While Boston has shown progress with AV tests, it is clear that city leaders everywhere are still going to grapple with the role of mass transit, especially in bigger cities. In Columbus, Ohio, questions about the future of mass transit could well come down to how well mobility is improved with self-driving vehicles of all types, officials there have told me.

Matt Hamblen is a journalist covering Smart City issues. He served as the senior editor for Computerworld for over 20 years. His current site is Smart City Scout.

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