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Autonomous vehicles won't save cities without sharing

Illustration of two hands passing off a car
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As congestion cripples the world's cities, transportation officials and city planners are trying to figure out how automated vehicles can help alleviate traffic and address climate change.

Why it matters: Robotaxis and delivery AVs running non-stop won't stop anything if they're merely replacing existing cars on the road. Instead, AVs need to be thoughtfully woven into reinvigorated public transportation systems so they become a desirable alternative to personal cars.

What's happening: Some of the world's largest cities are battling congestion by redirecting traffic away from urban centers, charging fees to enter the busiest areas or banning cars altogether.

  • New York City banned cars along 14th Street, one of its busiest corridors, to make travel easier for buses, copying what worked in Toronto, which cleared cars on King Street to make room for street cars.
  • In Paris, a major urban highway has been closed to cars and turned over to pedestrians. One Sunday a month, the city bans cars from the city center.
  • London charges a congestion fee for entering the busiest neighborhoods (something New York will do in 2021 and Los Angeles is considering).

Self-driving cars could add to the gridlock, which is why the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) published a blueprint to help cities get ready for the autonomous era.

  • "What we would really like to see happen is AV tech to be used as tool to meet their transportation goals, rather than using AVs as an end goal themselves." says NACTO policy associate Sudha Bharadwaj.
  • To be effective, AVs need to be shared, say researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California-Davis.
  • Without pooling, vehicle use would increase 15–20% by 2050, according to the report.

The catch: Most Americans prefer to commute in private vehicles, one study found.

  • Carpooling peaked during the 1970s energy crisis, dropping from 20% in 1980 to less than 10% today, says UC-Davis professor Dan Sperling.
  • Mass transit accounts for just 1% of all U.S. passenger miles traveled, and just 2% of total trips, he says.
  • Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have siphoned riders away from public transit systems, which are declining as a result.
  • "TNCs have shown that people are crying out for higher quality mobility services," Sperling tells Axios.

What's needed: Cities need to revamp their transportation policies to discourage single-passenger vehicles and encourage autonomous ride-sharing and public transit, experts say. A few cities have already seen early successes:

  • In Seattle more people are riding the bus and a new light rail system after the city invested to improve public transit.
  • Vancouver boosted transit ridership via SkyTrain, the world’s longest automated rail network, which hauls more than 495,000 passengers per day.
  • L.A. is partnering with Via, an on-demand shuttle service, to give people rides to busy public transit stations.

The bottom line: "If you give people other options for getting around, they’ll take them, as long as they're reasonable and convenient," NACTO's Alex Engel tells Axios.