New study notes that it’s a driverless future, not a people-less future

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A new study from Arcadis, HR&A Advisors and Sam Schwartz Consulting offers advice for city planners who are contemplating a future that includes autonomous vehicles, or AVs, as the nerds call them. McKinsey (who was not part of this particular study) says that by 2030, autonomous vehicles will account for 15 percent of auto sales worldwide. The study released today, “Driverless Future: A Policy Roadmap for City Leaders,” estimates that nearly 8 million people in its three sample cities will choose an AV over a traditional vehicle in the next 15-20 years.

Those three sample cities were New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. They were chosen for their range of density, walkability and pubic transport usage. The study compared the cost of car ownership to hypothetical AV ridesharing (Chariot, UberPOOL) and AV ridesourcing (Uber, Lyft), and determined when people in those cities were likely to make the jump from commuting in their own car to calling a self-driving car.

But the study’s authors also point out that in order for AV to work, it has to work for everyone. They recommend things like using open data and universal apps so riders can compare prices, travel times and environmental impact across modes of transportation (buses, trains, AV ridesharing, bikes, etc.) and pay using one app.

To that end, the authors also remind cities to remember that not everyone has equal access to (or interest in) technology. People who don’t have cell phones or bank accounts need to be able to access the transportation network, including autonomous rideshare or ridesource vehicles, through Dial-a-Ride and smartcard payment options.

It’s also worth considering now, as these technologies and services are expanding globally, how to fund accessible services. For example, the study notes that in New York City, there is a 30-cent fee per taxi ride that supports the city’s expansion of wheelchair-accessible transportation options. Ridesourcing services like Lyft and Uber do not pay that fee.

There are, of course, potential drawbacks to having fleets of AVs wandering city streets, and the study is aware of these problems. Mass adoption of AVs could encourage sprawl and increase the number of miles cars travel, and the system could develop in a way that leaves behind anyone without a cell phone and a checking account. AVs also could decrease public transit revenues, which would make public transportation an even less attractive option than it is now in most cities.

The study basically lays out two futures: the bad one where nobody plans and traffic congestion becomes unbearable and social inequalities get worse through lack of mobility, or the good one where cities plan for more than the immediate future to encourage mixed-use neighborhoods and towns with better transit options for everyone and fewer parking lots. Let’s stay optimistic out there.

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