Self-driving vehicles may not be able to reduce traffic congestion the way Silicon Valley believes it will. According to urban planning expert Peter Calthorpe, autonomous vehicles won’t solve urban problems like traffic congestion.
Calthorpe, a Berkeley-based urban planner and the co-creator of the design movement New Urbanism, says he isn’t against self-driving vehicles but worries it will cause more urban congestion.
“One thing is certain,” he said in an article in Urban Land, “zero or single-occupant vehicles are a bad thing. They cause congestion, eat up energy, exacerbate sprawl and emit more carbon per passenger-mile.”
Advocates for self-driving vehicles claim that autonomous cars are the future for urban areas not because they’re safer than human drivers (up to 80% of all bumper scratches occur when a person is driving their own car), but because they’ll help reduce traffic congestion and promote faster commutes.
Yet, Calthorpe argues that a range of transportation studies show that autonomous vehicles, if used the way modern vehicles are (carrying one person), will only cause more congestion much in the same way as ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
“The key distinction is the number of people per vehicle,” said Jerry Walters, a principal at the transportation consultancy Fehr and Peers. “Without pretty radically increasing the number of people per vehicle, autonomous systems will increase total miles traveled.”
When self-driving cars become popularized, Calthorpe says, everyone will want to drive in one. And once they become more affordable (the average cost of a new vehicle is $35,309) residents who use mass transit to do their errands will take their vehicles to do them instead.
Critics of ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft have mentioned similar problems with traffic congestion. Rather than reducing traffic by sharing vehicles, ride-sharing companies increase traffic because they place drivers on the road when they otherwise wouldn’t be and clients are typically those who use public transportation.
Urban Footprint, a company created by Calthorpe that offers software design tools for urban planners, environmental analysts, and architects, recently collaborated with Fehr and Peers for a study on transportation development.
The study determined that an autonomous rapid transit system would be twice as fast as the average bus and would cost half as much as operate. The results of the study have drawn the attention of any public transportation activists in Southern California.
“Autonomous rapid transit’s greater capacity combined with lower cost could really be the stimulus for the [California] housing development,” said Denny Zane, the executive director of Move LA. “We need to integrate autonomous technologies in a setting that will enhance transit use.”
Autonomous vehicles are expected to benefit the U.S. economy. Already, 13% of the world’s steel is used in the automotive industry. But where those autonomous vehicles are used make a major difference.
For instance, autonomous cars are different than autonomous tractor-trailers. Whereas autonomous trucks would reduce problems in the trucking industry such as low employment rate and long driving hours for truckers, autonomous vehicles may put more people on the road who could just as easily use public transportation.
It’s for this reason that Calthorpe insists urban planners take bold steps when rethinking the construction major boulevards. Houses, he says, should be closer together and an autonomous transit system should be more efficient.
“You have to redesign the street itself,” Calthorpe said. “You need to add autonomous transit, and you need to get rid of parallel parking and put in bikeways and better sidewalks.”