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blog: Role of local authorities in a world of autonomous vehicles

Author: David Brenig-Jones

There is a significant air of anticipation surrounding driverless, or autonomous, vehicles with tech-giants, manufacturers and governments pouring money into their development. Conversations with friends, and stories in the press point to widespread expectation that they will yield a utopia of cheap, convenient travel that solves congestion and frees up swathes of land for redevelopment. 

However, as the technology for autonomous vehicles is being developed, research has begun to identify how their implementation may prevent this utopia from taking hold, and in some circumstances worsen the problems associated with congestion.

Increase in congestion

The key problem relates to a marked increase in the total number of vehicle-miles driven.  This centres on the assumption that the introduction of fully automated vehicles could see a shift away from owning your own car to using shared-autonomous vehicles in the same way that you might use a taxi or an on-demand bus service. 

These shared services should be much cheaper than owning your own vehicle, and may also be cheaper than public transport services - especially in rural locations (Litman 2017). Total vehicle mileage is consequently expected to increase through a 'double whammy' of rising demand and the counter-intuitive notion that average vehicle occupancy might actually decrease. 

Travel demand is likely to increase because:

  • Convenient and cheaper travel naturally encourages more trips
  • New market segments will be able to travel. Sivak (2015) estimates an 11% increase in trips driven by younger, older and disabled people as well as non-drivers.
  • Trips may become longer as productive in-vehicle time allows people to live further from work and other opportunities.
  • All of this is set to occur on top of natural population increases, with UK cities forecast to grow by 10-17% by 2030.

Vehicle occupancy has been predicted to decrease, because taxis tend to run empty while they re-position themselves and the convenience of autonomous vehicles may encourage mode shift away from public transport towards services of this nature.

These trends are already evident: 59% of vehicles in London travel empty (TfL) and New York has seen a considerable rise in ride-share services (Uber and Lyft) while public transport use has fallen.

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Role of Local Authorities

All this brings a reasonable risk that the introduction of shared-autonomous services will significantly increase the traffic on our roads. This is likely to run counter to the liveable cities agenda, which may not be acceptable to residents. Consequently I think public authorities may have to play larger roles in managing local and national road networks to either control these flows or encourage more sustainable travel choices. 

Possible policy tools include:

  • Multiple occupancy lanes or zones to encourage the use of shared vehicles.
  • Traffic signals and banned turns to direct vehicles to main roads and off side streets.
  • Access only and non-motorised transport streets could also be deployed
  • Road user charging to encourage use of public transport, with flexible pricing schemes potentially applicable for different road types to discourage use of local roads. 
  • Providing high-quality, seamlessly integrated public transport that is as attractive as shared-taxis. Developments such as MaaS are important in this area.

Local authorities can also work together with providers of shared services to encourage more sustainable transport choices. These ideas are already relevant to ride-sharing schemes in place today:

  • Quality partnerships could be used to control drop-off/pick-up points in city centres to move vehicle activity away from leisure/shopping areas. Trip information could even feed into Urban Traffic Control systems.
  • Local authorities could subsidise ride-sharing trips that bring people to mass transit modes. For example in Centennial, Colorado where Uber trips to railway stations are discounted by 25%.
  • On-demand shared-services, which rely on high occupancies to achieve economies of scale, can be supported instead of contracted bus routes. For example Bridj in Kanas

I have set out just a small number of possible interventions that a local authority could deploy to manage increased demand. Importantly, creative solutions will be required to manage a disruptive technology, such as autonomous vehicles. Through pro-active policy choices local authorities will be able to help shape the way autonomous vehicles are used within their area in the future, to ensure they support liveable environments that continue to be enjoyed by people.


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