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How the future of commuting could cut emissions & travel time

Adapted from Hannon et. al., 2019, "The road to seamless urban mobility"; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

A new McKinsey & Co. report shows why autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing are kind of a wild card when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions — and have the potential to help provide climate benefits if planners take the right steps.

Why it matters: Uber and other companies are already changing the way people move around in cities, while AVs are poised to shake things up even further as the tech takes hold. But right now traffic is still getting worse for all kinds of reasons.

What they did: The report looks at 3 trajectories for how urban traffic and transport patterns could evolve, and what that means for the environment (among other things).

  • The best outcome, but hardly a foregone conclusion, is what they call "seamless mobility." This is reflected in the third bar in the chart above.
  • "In such an environment, the boundaries among private, shared, and public transport would be blurred, and travelers would have a variety of clean, cheap, and flexible ways to get from point A to point B," they write.
  • Under that scenario, traffic could rise by 30% yet travel times could still fall. And, if AVs are electric, urban emissions from transportation could fall by 85%.

In essence, under "seamless mobility," they see people traveling farther per year than under their other scenarios, yet more efficiently and cleanly.

But, but, but: That won't happen by itself, the report shows. If cities don't act, "the trends related to urbanization, population, and e-commerce are likely to make congestion and pollution worse."

  • Under a "business as usual" approach in which transport demand swells with populations and there's little policy innovation, urban transport demand rises by another 15% in 2030, emissions "could rise proportionally" and travel time grows.
  • Under the "unconstrained autonomy" scenario, where AV tech advances but policymakers hang back, there are still advantages. Use of shared AV robotaxis rises, private car ownership falls and emissions could improve — depending on how much of the fleet is electric. But travel times still rise and congestion might get worse.

What's next: The report lays out dozens of ways for cities to help manage the rise of autonomy and growing populations, including...

  • Deploying autonomous tech to trains to speed them up and carry more people.
  • Working with state and federal officials on AV rules.
  • Using "smart parking" tech.
  • Shifting commercial deliveries to off-peak hours.
  • Scaling electric scooters and bikes to connect to mass transit.

"One tool that cities can use to encourage the use of EVs is the creation of low- or zero-emissions zones," while other steps include a push to electrify fleet and government vehicles.