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Study: Driverless tech means millions fewer cars in big cities

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New technology will decrease car ownership, but leave cities with new bills to pay

AP Driverless Car
A row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

With Uber, Lyft, and leading automakers running trials for ridesharing with local transit agencies and testing automated drivers, a new future for urban transportation is beginning to take shape. According to a new report, “Driverless Future: A Policy Roadmap for City Leaders,” prepared by researchers from Arcadis, H&R Advising, and Sam Schwartz Consulting, that shift will change cities in many of the same ways you’ve heard before: roadways won’t look the same and urban design will need to adapt to new transportation realities. But this report also offers some new ways of looking at how this shift will impact U.S. cities.

First of all, the study attempts to place numbers on just how many drivers will be impacted by the technology shift, and how many could afford or decide to switch to AV vehicles or a combination of AV rides and ridesharing, effectively abandoning private ownership. Looking at three different metro areas—Los Angeles, New York City, and Dallas—the report estimates significant shifts in car ownership with more car owners expected to stop driving based on density. L.A. could see 1.8 to 2.2 million driver switch (36-44 percent of all drivers,) New York City might see 2.4 to 3.6 million (46-60 percent) leave their cars behind, and Dallas might see 600,000 to 900,000 (21-31 percent) get out from behind the wheel.

With some of the negative aspects of car ownership reduced significantly—though the number of vehicle miles traveled is expected to rise, as consumers are exposed to easier, more accessible mobility services—this shift appears to be a net gain for cities. But the report outlines numerous ways in which cities may have to pay or invest with the advent of more driverless traffic on the road. Any change comes with trade-offs, and these changes only underline one of the reports important messages, that planners and government should begin planning for the future now.

Driverless cars, such as this model by Waymo, could revolutionize transportation for Americans with disabilities Waymo

Automated vehicle technology make take money from public transit

Convenience is king when it comes to transit, and as ridesourcing and carsharing services continue to prove their efficiency and cut prices, they could begin to challenge transit, especially in areas with less frequent service. The report suggests that eventually, private services could make a dent into ticket revenues, which typically make up 30% to 50% of a transit agency’s operating budget.

New York already provides a case study that should serve as a cautionary tale to transit agencies. Uber’s uberPOOL ride system is being marketed as being cheaper than a MetroCard, and Uber activity has already eaten into the budget of the NYC transit agency, the MTA. In 2009, all taxi fares in New York City included a new 50 cents surcharge paid directly to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). In addition, a 30 cents per-ride fee supports the city’s wheelchair-accessibility expansion goals. Uber and Lyft don’t pay either fee, and their popularity has meant the MTA’s revenues from these fees has plummeted 10 percent between 2014 and 2015. The MTA is currently trying to update the law so all for-hire vehicles are subject to the same surcharge.

City budgets will take a hit when car-based fees disappear

Vehicle registration fees, metered street parking and garage parking all contribute to the bottom line for many cities and municipalities. If a significant fraction of car owners begin leaving the road, as this study predicts, the lack of fees will add significant strain to city coffers.

data tool from Uber
Cities will need to catch up with tech companies when it comes to transit data
Uber Movement

Residential-only areas may become less popular, and even blighted

Currently, the types of mixed-use development most renters and homeowners favor has a higher price, in part due to the cost of including mandatory parking. In a high-rise building, parking can be as much as 20% of total construction costs, making some new development impossible without subsidies. If widespread autonomous vehicle adoption leads to different zoning and building codes, that would level the playing field in terms of rent, and potentially push renters away from residential-only neighborhoods or suburbs. The report believes over the long term, this may lead to reduced property values for more homogenous residential developments, even blight, which carries its own costs for cities.

Cities needs to invest in new transit payment systems and open data networks

To keep up with technology and new transit systems, cities will need to adapt or lose out on the benefit of synergy with new driverless and automated options. This means creating payment systems that work across different devices and networks, allowing users to hop out of a Uber and into light rail without missing a beat. These kind of multimodal shifts will also require better data and data sharing to coordinate, so cities will also need to create data portals or data-sharing systems to coordinate with new transportation options. Cities should work with private apps and operators to integrate universal payment with the mapping and booking of trips, and investigate the benefits of smart cards.