Don’t Drive(rless) Alone

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What should cities do to prepare for a future where technological innovations not only continue to disrupt traditional approaches, but catapult forward at an accelerated pace?

Let’s start with what the near future might hold. One big shift on the transportation front could be the advent of networked driverless cars. The news in recent months surrounding the pursuit of driverless car ride-hailing presents great potential opportunities for a more sustainable transportation future.

Since the horse and buggy there has been a fundamental relationship between vehicle and driver — on-demand driverless car fleets greatly inverts this dynamic. Due to the popularity of application based on-demand vehicles now it only stands to reason that if driverless fleets can bring these costs down and the reliability of services up that there is a great potential for growth.

Tied together with demographic shifts and generational preferences, the nature of transportation and mobility is shifting in cities. Millennials are driving less and getting drivers licenses at a lower rate, as they choose alternatives over the traditional dream of owning cars. And, I don’t know about you, but I never bought into a car as freedom. I look forward to the day where I can sit back and have a driverless vehicle take me wherever I want to go.

With projections from a range of sources putting driverless cars on the street in the next 5 to 15 years, this once seemingly futuristic concept will soon become reality. Google has proffered a 2020 timeframe with Cisco’s technology trend watchers recently opining that by around that time it will cost more to drive our own cars than to allow them to ferry us about.

We need fully utilized carpooling machines

How driverless vehicles are ultimately used — as either single occupancy or fully utilized carpooling machines — will weigh heavily on their ultimate environmental footprint. Shared driverless cars could lead to more sustainable outcomes, due to less intensive use of individual vehicles, and greatly reduced traffic. Combined with sensor networks, data driven transportation decisions will become paramount.

We have already seen examples of such systems at play internationally. Singapore’s unified transportation platform, comprising multiple data feeds that are processed real-time, leads to reduced traffic and better vehicle flow. Marrying this type of data output with networked driverless vehicles can only allow cities to better anticipate additional road capacity and maintenance needs while also improving occupant safety.

Furthermore, driverless cars are one of the more powerful tools to help solve the first- and last-mile problem in metro regions nationwide. With over 80% of U.S. residents now living in urban areas, and the growth in cities outpacing the rest of the country, a self-driving environment could be key to rolling into a more sustainable future.

The positives must be tempered by the potential negatives and this is where the companies themselves as well as policy choices by government leaders can make a difference. UberPool and LyftLine are positive developments from the current generation of transportation network companies that should be enhanced and expanded. Currently being piloted in a few cities, more extensive roll-outs nationwide would accord quite well with city environmental goals.

This on-demand mix of ride-hailing and carpooling augurs well for the future. Tying this together with robust HOV restrictions and other environmentally friendly policy choices could push this decidedly in the right direction.

Current trends for vehicle miles traveled have also been going down for nearly the last decade and mass transportation and bicycle usage has gone up. However, if rather than moving to an intensive shared-driverless car future we all ride alone, the outcome could be detrimental rather than supportive of environmental goals.

Who’s doing the sharing?

It is also imperative that we properly consider the equity considerations that arise under a shared driverless future. Public versus private delivery of vital services is a key issue. Will this model be wholly operated by private industry? Should municipal ride-hailing models be on the table or potential driverless fleet options be further explored by government? How will transit agencies react to these coming shifts?

These issues and more will need to be encapsulated into long-range planning that is happening now in cities. Local demand for transit projects in recent years has been growing dramatically. There are currently 99 transit expansion projects and 23 major system renovations underway, as well as a host of others in the planning and review stages throughout the United States.

With this type of public transportation expansion underway and the goal of public transit to serve the whole city as a community benefit, a predominantly private driverless system could negatively affect transit systems and lead to reduced usage and support. While private service is preferable to individually owned vehicles, unlike public transportation, it increasingly separates residents in different classes from one another.

The ultimate sustainability goals may be able to be met in the short-term with a predominantly private system, but wider community goals must also be taken into account. In the long-run private business models can change whereas fixed municipally owned transit infrastructure is a community benefit that has historically stood the test of time. Let’s be sustainable on all fronts as we plan and execute our coming shared transportation future.

Transportation not the only arrow in the sustainable sharing quiver

While transportation is a key area for a low-carbon future influenced by sharing, it’s by far not the only arrow in the quiver. From bikesharing to homesharing to co-working, there is a clear environmental tie that promotes lifestyles focused less on consumption and more on greater access. It is possible now in most cities to make it through your entire day using shared resources.

Furthermore, the cultural zeitgeist reflects these values, with millennials showing enhanced preferences for sharing over ownership more generally. The smartphone has provided the platform for this shift, and the current generation of sharing economy companies has been quick to capitalize and enhance this direction.

Building upon this headwind as we move into the future will be a key component to success. Our nation’s cities have long been leaders on sustainability and one of the great promises of the sharing economy is the better use of underutilized resources.

Our recent study on the sentiment surrounding the sharing economy in the 30 largest American cities shows that the majority of cities recognize that sharing is here to stay. And, in a world where the only constant is change, it is imperative that cities allocate time to understanding these emerging technologies and trends.

The future is anything but settled, but what is settled is the centrality of cities to our nation’s success. Technology developments will enhance our urban experience, but they also risk leaving more people behind. The city of the future must be a city for everyone.

Waking up one day in 2025 and looking around we want our cities to be socially cohesive, environmentally positive places where the benefits of growth and new technologies enhance quality of life. Proper planning and coordinated efforts now can continue to help us move toward a future where the terms sharing and sustainable are forever interchangeable.

 Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.