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With driverless cars coming, cities need to lay down rules of the road

A proposed transit tax and drop-zone concept, aimed at Uber and Lyft, foreshadow bigger debates on regulating driverless cars

When AV cars hit the road, will cities be ready?

The drive for driverless vehicles seems to be speeding up. This week alone, Waymo announced plans to hold its first AV trials without a safety driver, Las Vegas launched its new autonomous shuttle route, and the French firm Navya unveiled a new autonomous cab.

But despite predictions and prognostications around the ways autonomous vehicles will reshape our urban environment, alter our roadways, and even impact buses and mass transit, cities haven’t been at the forefront of anticipating and planning for the massive changes these technologies will bring. As Andrew Hawkins at The Verge put it, “self-driving cars are on a collision course with our crappy cities.”

That’s why a few recently announced initiatives by U.S. cities should be welcomed as a way to start the conversation. Disruption is a tired tech buzzword, but the potential for driverless cars to change much of how a city operates shouldn’t be casually dismissed. Local leaders need to lay the groundwork for adaptation now, especially in the way they think about, work with, and regulate ride sharing services. Attempts to start reckoning with these upcoming shifts are welcome.

An Uber and Lyft pickup spot outside the Indianapolis airport. A new proposal would create similar spots on San Francisco streets.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently promoted a plan to increase the fees charged to ride hailing services. The proposal would raise the city fees charged for every Uber and Lyft ride, currently at 52 cents, by 15 cents next year, and a nickel in 2019. That money will be used to fund mass transit improvements, specifically track, structure, signal, and power upgrades to the city’s L trains, according to plans released this week by the Chicago Transit Authority. It would make Chicago the first city to specifically tax the ride hailing companies as a way to fund public transportation.

Emanuel justified the concept as a payback of sorts—when he first announced a version of the plans in October, he claimed Uber and Lyft costs the city government $40 million a year in lost revenue. With Illinois budget issues eliminating state financing for infrastructure, Emanuel believes this may be the way to fund upkeep and improvements. And, according to the Chicago Tribune, Uber and Lyft rides under the proposed tax would still be cheaper than taxis.

Earlier this week, San Francisco proposed the establishment of pick-up and drop-off zones for ride hailing services. Mayor Ed Lee said he hopes a pilot project, built via consensus, can help alleviate blocked bike lanes, congested parking lots, and crowded streets in front of popular drop-off spots.

San Francisco’s plan is more of a plea for cooperation. The city asked Uber and Lyft to participate, as a way to help solve congestion (which probably isn’t doing the apps any favors). Both companies expressed a desire to work together, including developing a plan to set up geofencing within their apps to create designated drop sites for drivers. There aren’t details on how many zones will be created, and no word yet if the company’s will accede to Lee’s suggestion that they share anonymized trip data. But their agreement to cooperate is definitely a positive.

While taxing and trying to alleviate traffic issues may seem unrelated, they both speak to what many expect to be a growing aspect of transportation policy: cooperation and coordination between municipalities and ridehailing services. Many of the AV shuttle pilots currently underway are testing the viability of using these smaller vehicles as feeders for larger transit systems, creating hub-and-spoke systems for transit. And many ongoing trials between cities and these services where cities subsidize rides, are testing out the best ways to integrate Uber and Lyft into urban and regional transit systems.

As the role of these companies grow, there’s also the matter of responsibility (Uber could certainly use the good press). According to the San Francisco police department, Uber and Lyft drivers accounted for two-thirds of congestion-related traffic tickets between April and June of this year (city supervisor Hillary Ronen recently wrote a letter of complaint to both companies). How will AV cars impact congestion, especially in busy commercial and entertainment districts? With studies showing Uber and Lyft usage may be decreasing public transit rides, is it fair to levy a tax? If these services are profiting off city-maintained streets and services, how should they be taxed to pay for them?

These two proposals offer a preview of what may come, as transportation evolves and more cities wrestle with how to adapt. In a positive sign, both companies supported the Chicago tax increase, with an Uber spokesperson saying the “future of urban transportation will be a mix of public transit and ride-sharing.” City officials and tech companies need to work together to improve our roadways and transit systems. And as long as cities own and pay for the roads, they should make sure they’re used in a way that’s equitable, efficient, and ideally, environmentally sound.