Six Ways AVs Could Reshape Our Cities — And Not for the Better

Image:  NVIDIA Corporation, CC
Image: NVIDIA Corporation, CC

A recent Congressional hearing on “the road ahead for automated vehicles” largely ignored the potentially devastating effects that personally owned AVs could have on the neighborhoods those cars drive through — and some experts say that means federal regulators need to start thinking outside the (robo)car as they write policy to anticipate the mode’s rise.

On Feb. 2, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing “to explore the impact of automated vehicle deployment … on mobility, infrastructure, safety, workforce, and other economic and societal implications or benefits.” Most of the testimony, however, focused on just two items: how increasingly automated vehicles will eventually make roads safer (at least when experts finally figure out how to get them to stop hitting pedestrians in less-than-perfect road conditions), and how they might cut jobs for truckers, transit drivers, and other people who make their living behind the wheel.

One witness who did bring up the potential downsides of the AV revolution was Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon, who highlighted six ways that even perfect AVs could wreak havoc on U.S. communities — unless federal leaders anticipate those impacts now, and start funding research to mitigate them.

“We stand at this moment in a situation not dissimilar to where our country stood when the first automobiles were rolling onto our streets over a century ago,” Larco testified. “Imagine if, at that moment, we had the foresight to consider how automobiles would be used throughout the country, the benefits they could deliver, and also the problems they might create. … Our AV future is not preordained: it is ours to shape.”

Here’s what that future might look like if we aren’t careful.

1. Clogged streets

Just like app-taxi adherents before them, AV enthusiasts have long claimed that highly automated vehicles will end congestion as we know it.

That hypothesis, though, definitely didn’t prove true for the manually-operated Ubers and Lyfts of the world, which are driven around empty so much of the time that studies have blamed them for double-digit increases in average regional traffic delays. Larco worries that even privately owned AVs may have similar impacts, even if they are more likely than a human driver to do things like maintain a constant speed on the highway, or pay attention for the exact moment when the light turns green.

“We suspect shared AVs will follow these same pattern [as “dead-heading” app taxis] … as they send cars to run errands, pick up other family members, or simply have a car drive around the block while they complete a task,” said Larco. “AVs could potentially reduce some of this impact on congestion if they are able to increase travel flow by reducing stop-and-start behavior. However, an AV future that does not have controls in place could exacerbate the congestion trends we are seeing with rideshare, putting increased strain on our transportation system.”

The upside? AVs would likely need fewer parking spaces, which Larco says could free up precious urban space for other uses…unless cities cannibalize on-street parking lanes for yet another driving lane in a futile attempt to cut down on robo-car traffic jams. (Which, let’s face it, they probably will.)

2. An uncertain future for transit — and transit workers

Highly automated buses and trains could be just the boost beleaguered transit agencies need to increase their service, especially considering that labor represents a whopping 60 percent of their average annual expenditures. But Larco worries that when that happens, countless transit workers would be left out in the cold — and that those short-term financial benefits would be undercut anyway if automated car technology pulls riders off shared modes.

“Eliminating the need for drivers would have serious labor consequences but could also potentially create savings that increase frequency of service and service area expansion,” he said. “On the other hand, riders who can afford it may use personal or rideshare AVs in place of transit, reducing overall transit ridership and leading to a reduction of service frequency and coverage.”

3. Making car ownership even more expensive

Most of today’s automated vehicle features are pricey add-ons to already-expensive luxury cars. And Larco warns there’s no guarantee that will change as more advanced AVs proliferate across U.S. roads — or that the added maintenance involved in keeping a robocar running will get cheaper, either.

“The overall scale or final direction of impacts are yet unknown, but estimates for future AV travel ranges from $0.60 -$1 per vehicle mile for privately owned AVs, and $0.50-$1 per vehicle-mile for shared AVs,” he cited. “While this is considerably less than current rideshare or taxi vehicle-mile costs, it is substantially more than personal vehicle costs or public transit fares ($0.20-$0.60 per passenger-mile).”

4. Sprawl, sprawl, sprawl

Multiplied out across a lifetime of driving, the hefty price tag of future AVs could put robocars out of reach for many U.S. residents, particularly if regulators mandate that all new vehicles must come equipped with the tech. And even worse, commuters who can’t afford them may find themselves stranded in increasingly sprawl-ravaged places, as their richer neighbors’ commutes get less punishing and they move further away from work and other destinations.

“AVs promise to reduce the friction of travel as they will purportedly move faster along freeways and arterials, while at the same time giving occupants the ability to do more while they commute as they do not need to drive themselves,” said Larco. “With this, individuals might be willing to move farther out in search of less expensive housing, opening exurban areas to development, and increasing pressures on sprawl.”

Of course, removing one of drivers’ biggest incentive to shorten their commutes — boredom and frustration behind the wheel — — has massive environmental drawbacks, like the destruction of ecosystems on heretofore undeveloped land, and increasing health-damaging particulate pollution, even if most AVs are also EVs. That alone could cancel out much of the environmental benefits associated with AVs, like increased route efficiency and decreased stop-and-go traffic.

5. Empty government coffers

U.S. communities still haven’t figured out a politically viable way to replace the fuel tax revenue they’ll lose once the nation’s vehicle fleet switches to electric cars. What will they do when AVs eliminate many of the other revenues associated with driving, like licensing, registration, parking, and even traffic citations?

To get a sense of what that might look like, Larco cites a University of Oregon study that found that “revenue losses could be between 3 and 51 percent, with the direst predictions being for cities that heavily depend on fuel taxes and parking fees to fund transportation.”

In a world with less driving, of course, all those revenue streams would slow to a trickle, too — but cities would also recapture the significant costs that automobility poses on society in the process. With the exceptions, perhaps, of car crashes and greenhouse gas emissions, the same can’t necessarily be said of AVs.

6. Dubious benefits to people with disabilities

Perhaps the most tantalizing promise of the AV revolution is that it will open our car-dominated world to people who can’t drive, including many members of the disability community. Larco warns, though, that just like rideshare before it, the automated car craze could easily leave these residents out.

“Accessibility will be determined by issues such as the cost of trips and vehicles, if vehicles serve all areas of a region, if they physically accommodate users who are disabled, if users are sufficiently tech enabled, and in the model of shared vehicles, if users are banked and have access to digital banking,” he wrote. “These barriers are not insurmountable, and many researchers and leading AV and rideshare companies are working on solutions to them, but firm solutions are by no means clear at this point.”