Cities will need to fight zero-occupant miles with “TDM for autonomous vehicles”

The advent of autonomous vehicles is fraught with uncertainty, especially when it comes to their impacts on traffic, travel choices, and the broader transportation system.They offer many potential benefits, but many potential negative impacts, depending in part on how they are deployed. While widespread adoption may still be decades away, significant numbers will begin to be on the roads in less than 10 years, according to manufacturers and other observers. Ultimately, many expect them to have major transformational effects on our transportation systems and built environment.Today’s policymakers have an opportunity to implement plans that will guide the efficient usage of AVs and rider choices that may affect us for generations. To do so, it’s worth considering AV impacts as a potential transportation demand management problem – and preparing TDM-type policies to address them.

When it comes to the most pressing issues to be addressed in the deployment of autonomous vehicles, safety and infrastructure do not necessarily top the list of urgent needs. Federal and state policies are already looking to address these. Since safety is one of the major motivations for adopting autonomous technologies, and a top concern for skeptical consumers, agencies and automakers are prioritizing it. Either they will be made safe, or they won’t be on the roads.

Meanwhile, the exact impacts to communities and traffic systems are poorly understood, and have not been addressed in the ongoing conversation to the extent that they should be. Ironically, the efficiency of AVs has long been touted as a solution to traffic, but new research is beginning to suggest that AVs will, in fact, generate more of it. Simply put, there is no guarantee the traffic effects of AVs will be handled. It is entirely possible that they will spread widely and, without adequate policies, many places may never manage their impacts. We never fully anticipated the impacts of conventional cars as they were being developed, and we have been living with many unintended consequences in the form of our communities for the last 100 years.

What we do know is that AVs will create an unprecedented convenience in driving. By eliminating most of the hassles of driving, such as parking and lost productivity time, AVs will induce not only more trips, but longer ones. Additionally, AVs waiting to pick up new riders will add “deadheading” miles. For traffic, the only thing worse than a single-occupant vehicle is a zero-occupant vehicle. Placed all together, this suggests they will almost certainly increase vehicle-miles traveled, energy use, and emissions. These impacts might be locked in by further sprawl and other shifts toward less efficient land-use patterns.

google AV - Phil HollenbackHow people start to use AVs will matter in terms of the traffic impacts they create. Personal autonomous vehicles, according to a landmark 2015 Urban Mobility study by the International Transit Forum and Corporate Partnership Board, will generate up to 35 percent more VMT than conventional personal cars.

Those in a shared “fleet” model would generate less. Meanwhile, AVs in a taxi model, carrying single passengers all the way to their destinations, would create 90 percent more VMT than typical taxies. Using those taxis as a connection to transit with multiple passengers, however, would only produce 6 percent more VMT.

To avoid the worst of these traffic scenarios, policy needs to be deployed with an eye towards minimizing the added miles and the demand for situations involving zero-occupant vehicles.

When it comes down to it, the demand guiding AV impacts is a hybrid of a person’s choice, as in their decision to initiate the trip, and the self-driving technology itself. Both together could be regarded as the typical “commuter” of modern TDM thinking. Whereas traditional TDM focuses on commuter choices, AV TDM might address the ways in which the AV technology is employed and how those cars carry passengers.

In short, policymakers should adapt transportation demand management principles to autonomous vehicles, using a mix of incentives and disincentives to guide choices.

As with TDM best practices, a few ideas should form a hierarchy of priorities for states, cities, and transportation agencies. First off, policies should always seek to encourage AVs that move more people in fewer vehicles. While the driverless technologies make point-to-point drop-offs possible, the realities of cities and highways means that they simply cannot accommodate one AV per person.

Second, similar incentives should be in place to guide people and employers towards more efficient choices. The deployment and pricing models offered by automotive and tech companies should be structured to make shared AVs, not personal AVs, the model of choice. This is a complicated endeavor, but important to the success of AVs in providing improved mobility and not increased congestion. As mentioned above, AVs that feed into transit systems create the lowest amount of VMT and, in many cases, might expand the reach and usefulness of those transit systems. Current TDM policies, such as employer transit benefits that make transit more affordable and useful to commuters, might help guide their use of AVs as a complement to transit, too.

Lastly, policymakers should seek to create pricing policies in anticipation of the traffic-inducing effects of personal AVs. The program might be created in escalating prices, as to disincentivize the least efficient choices. A VMT fee would discourage longer trips in general, while a higher single-occupant fee would encourage AV riders to share rides. Lastly, a zero-occupant fee, addressing the miles added by AVs circling between pick-ups or headed home to park, would warrant the highest fee. “ZOV” miles represent an entirely new congestion danger, as they may be generated from the mere convenience of AV owners asking their cars to circle while they pick up groceries, but can add up to significant traffic consequences.

The national dialogue around AV policy is a unique chance to rethink how we prioritize our transportation systems and the incentives within it. A century ago, when the internal combustion engine automobile began to proliferate, cities missed this opportunity to guide how they affected communities.  Rather than adapting places around AVs, modern policies need to shape AV usage and behaviors to keep building better communities.

Photos: Top, an autonomous Uber test vehicle in Pittsburgh (Foo Conner, Flickr, Creative Commons). Embedded, a Google AV on a California highway (Phil Hollenback, Flickr, Creative Commons).

How ride-hailing is disrupting transit, the auto industry, and our communities

This is a two-part series on ride-hailing carpool-like services. Part 1 introduced us to Via, now operating in Washington D.C., and included the results of a test ride with the service.Via launched in 2012 in Manhattan and now also operates in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

And it’s similar to other services such as San Francisco’s Chariot and the now-defunct Bridj and Split in being oriented to multiple passengers. Yet it differs, according to Gabrielle McCaig, vice president of communications at Via, in that “the algorithm, when booking it, is thinking not just about a fixed route.” Rather, “at the point that you request, we basically create a bus stop out of thin air,” and “in real time, route you and the vehicle to this virtual bus stop,” picking up passengers without detours.

Those virtual bus stops are needed because Via requires passengers to walk, although only a block or two, in order to provide faster and less-expensive rides. And although it lacks fixed routes, the service does operate in a limited area, with a flat rate of $5 in New York City, $2.95 in Washington, D.C., and starting at $3 in Chicago.

One of the interesting parts of Via’s business model is that it’s not just a private service. It also partners extensively with public transit agencies, making its proprietary software available to them. Capital Metro in Austin, Texas; Keolis in France; and Arriva in the United Kingdom are among the partners, and the company also licenses its technology to car companies, notably Daimler.

Vehicles include standard cars that can take three or four people, larger sedans, and cutaway buses that can fit 15 or 20, bridging the gap between taxis and buses and making transit services more flexible.

Who will ride Via?

The traditional bus, while maligned as slow and inefficient, has extended mobility to huge populations. In contrast, modern ride-hailing depends upon the end user having access to a smartphone. To help alleviate what could become an equity problem, Via has initiated a telephone option in Austin, with dispatchers. Nevertheless, scaling this system up and keeping it affordable may be a separate problem.

There is a chance that ride-hail services could “take away so many riders” from traditional bus service that it puts buses at an even further disadvantage among all the transportation options to choose between, explains Malcolm Kenton, a passenger rail and transit consultant in Washington, D.C., whom you may recall took the Via ride with me. If bus service declines, those unable to access ride-hailing – generally, the poorest and most politically disadvantaged already – will be hurt most.  McCaig says that where the bus route is direct, people will still use the bus, but “in areas that are pockets to the bus” or when bus lines are overflowing, they will “hop onto Via.”

What are the possibilities for Via reshaping our communities for the better?

A crucial question is whether ride-share systems will augment public transit or compete with it.

“We very much see ourselves as a complement to public transit,” says McCaig. She explains that the service started in a part of New York City isolated from transit, so Via was often used to access the subway. Where “people live in little transportation desert pockets,” says McCaig, Via is most useful. It can also eliminate the need for multiple transfers or changes of vehicle during a single trip – consistently one of public transit’s most unattractive features.

Another question is whether Via will increase or decrease traffic congestion.

Certainly, by encouraging multiple passengers, the service is more likely to relieve congestion than are Uber and Lyft. And having cars in continual use saves on the need for parking, which currently occupies prime urban space.

“I would like to see some data on how well Via vehicles are used,” says Kenton, such as “is the vehicle occupied most of the time or unoccupied” and how much they are simply circling around.

It is also possible that Via, by making inexpensive pick-up available, will lead to more people in automobiles rather than on buses and trains or on bicycles and their own feet.

Perhaps the most prominent critique of existing ride-hailing services has been the way they treat their drivers, generally classified as “independent contractors,” which circumvents labor laws. Drivers assume insurance, capital, and operating costs. They are able to set their own hours, but not the amount they charge or what chunk of that goes to the company owning the software.

Via does also consider its drivers independent contractors. However, explains McCaig, “we’ve always provided real-time phone support” at any hour. A driver with, for instance, a flat tire “can get in touch with a real human at Via,” a benefit now being copied by other ride-hail companies. Riders can also receive a set hourly rate or, if they prefer, can be paid based on the number of trips. “We’ve found that drivers really enjoy driving with Via,” says McCaig.

Only the tip of the iceberg for “mobility as a service”

Kenton disputes the theory that public transit is viable only because of government services, whereas other transportation options operate strictly through free-market principles. Uber and Lyft “are heavily subsidized by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.” Both otherwise lose money, and are operating based on speculation about their future profitability.

The future of transit is therefore being planned through an amalgamation of companies that must fight for their own survival, which makes it difficult to prioritize a harmonious, environmentally friendly society. For transit policymakers, the question is whether and how these services will spur a system that serves more people in a sustainable way.

Despite his reservations about ride-hailing, Kenton believes that “ideally, having competition should force transit to up its game.” This could include incorporating innovations and working together with ride-hailing companies. Chicago, for instance, is partnering with Uber to create a more flexible network.

Still, the only certainty is change, a condition of capitalism’s creative destruction. “All the car companies are really freaked out about e-hailing,” says Zack Wasserman, head of Business Global Development at Via. “Over the long term, people are going to buy automobiles less” and move to “consuming mobility as a service.”

Hedging their bets, the smart car manufacturers are partnering with companies like Via, as are smart public-transit systems. Innovation and entrepreneurship may be a necessary component in moving our transit systems forward, but thoughtful policymaking is also needed.

Photo by

On CityLab 4 May 2017 The Self-Driving Dilemma by Andrew Small

Autonomous vehicles could spark a cleaner, cheaper urban mobility revolution—or they could make it tougher to combat sprawl, congestion, and climate change.

The promise of autonomous cars has struck an especially jubilant chord with a chorus of futurist urban thinkers. The big transformative hope: We can break the death grip of car-centric urban design and planning, which has been something of a disaster for most American cities in the 20th century. In the near future, self-driving cars will simply circulate through cities, freeing road space and liberating millions of acres of parking lots for more useful purposes. Combine that with the ongoing electrification of the vehicle fleet, and it might look as if we are nearing an urban transportation utopia.

But the dream of cheap, clean mobility in cities might run up against some harsh realities—soaring energy consumption, supercharged sprawl, and intensified traffic congestion—if AVs are simply deployed to encourage more driving.

That’s one message from a new report prepared by the University of California Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a nonprofit organization that develops bus rapid transit systems and promotes environmentally friendly urban planning. They’ve been crunching the numbers on how to avert warming the planet with carbon emissions while also reducing gridlock and increasing mobility.

The report looks at three possible scenarios for vehicle use by 2050 and compares their energy demands. Option one: We continue with privately owned internal-combustion cars the way they are. Or, there’s a “two revolutions” model, where both electric and automated vehicles come into common use by 2030 and 2040. Then there’s the triple-revolution scenario, which introduces widespread ride-sharing by 2030, as explained by this handy infographic.

(Courtesy of ITDP)

First, the energy and emissions angle: If we continue using gas engines in vehicles, we’ll dump 4,600 megatons of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2050. The second scenario combines electric and autonomous vehicles and results in 63 percent fewer emissions with 1,700 megatons of CO2 total. That math figures in the fact that the combination of two technologies will not reduce the 2.1 billion cars expected to be on the road in 2050. By the ITDP’s estimates, introducing AVs might increase vehicle travel by 15 to 20 percent.

The press release for the study outlines how many megatons each big global emitter’s urban vehicles stand to contribute, emissions-wise, by 2050. Here’s a table of CO2 megatons under each scenario.
United States 664 156 72
Europe (OECD) 483 67 32
China 778 254 115
India 479 259 108

In implementing the Paris Agreement, countries need to cut their CO2emissions in half in order to achieve the goal of preventing a 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperature. Consider those changes in the context of the United States in 2015: The EPA estimates that the United States was responsible for about 659 gigatons of carbon (a gigaton is 1,000 megatons) with transportation overall producing about 27 percent of those emissions compared to other economic sectors.

EPA estimates of greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector (EPA)

CityLab asked lead author Lewis Fulton, who co-directs the Institute of Transportation Studies’s Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS) program at UC Davis, how much urban transportation factors in this climate change equation. Cars in cities are like one-tenth of [the transportation] number,” Fulton says. “Cars in general, is probably one-fifth of transportation’s carbon footprint.”

One barrier to getting that number down has been the slow adoption of electric vehicles. The average age of a U.S. car is over 11 years, and prices on new electric vehicles remain generally higher than traditional ones. Right now, the United States is on target for about one million all-electric cars on the road, a small fraction of the overall fleet. “That’s still only one million out of close to 300 million vehicles,” he says. “It’s going to take more than 15 to 20 years to get the full stock to turn over. If we somehow miraculously get very high sales shares of electric cars by 2030, we still might not get rid of internal combustion engine vehicles until 2050.”

To reduce transportation’s carbon impact by 80 percent, down to 700 megatons by 2050, we’ll need to do big-time ride-sharing, according to Jacob Mason, a transportation researcher at ITDP who co-authored the report. And we’ll need to continue to rely on mass transit modes—think, yes, buses and subways. “A four-person shared UberPool or Lyft Line is not going to replace 40 people on a bus,” Mason says. “It certainly won’t ever replace a whole fleet. Sharing a car was never going to replace 1,000 people on a train or a bus rapid transit system.”

One school of thought on autonomous vehicles holds that they’ll increase traffic and sprawl: Without expensive fuel and the soul-gnawing investment in time wasted commuting behind the wheel, people will feel the pain of driving less, live even further away from urban centers, and basically use robot-cars for all manner of frivolous pursuits. In fact, AVs might produce a rebound effect, increasing both energy consumption and traffic congestion. Once we hit the coveted Stage 5 automation, we could even see “zero occupancy” driving—empty vehicles roaming the city doing errands for their masters, without people inside. (Forgot your lunch? No problem—send your car home to pick it up!)

“With a much lower cost of traveling,” Mason says. “People [will be able to live] farther away with longer commutes, and there will also be more low-occupancy vehicle trips.” Once driving these vehicles becomes cheaper, the challenge will become encouraging people to share instead of driving alone.

The model in the study also assumes that a transition to cleaner energy will be slower if electrification comes through individual vehicles. “It will be much more expensive to bring decarbonization to the grid,” Mason says. “It will be harder to make sure that all of that energy production is through carbon-neutral sources, so we assume there is a much lower likelihood that we’re going to decarbonize all of the energy production.”

 Even if each individual’s driving costs drop, the external costs that society pays may continue to grow. ”One of our big policy recommendations is setting pricing for travel that corresponds to the benefits and costs to society,” Mason says. “We [now] subsidize driving in a number of ways, from fuel subsidies to free parking and free streets. We haven’t priced any of those costs into our current transportation system or urban development.”
And even in the electric AV future, the researchers say, cities will need to move people via mass transit—don’t fill in those subways. But there could be ways to add flexibility to encourage more sharing. “What’s often talked about is microtransit or a van pooling,” Mason says. “With vehicle automation and better technology, those could really supplement the existing public transport network in lower-demand areas. It is about getting where you need to go in a reasonable amount of time and having cities that are functional and sustainable in the big sense—socially, environmentally, and economically.”

Fulton sounds a big note of caution on the timing of these multiple revolutions, whatever shape they take. “It could take 30 or 40 years to phase in electric cars and reach this driverless car world where everything is clean and automated in a perfect symphony,” he says. “But we have to figure out how to live for decades where you have many kinds of vehicles out there, unless we made some kind of decision as a society to accelerate the change.”