Category: Policy approaches

NYC at Cap-acity

Photo by Kevin Lee on Unsplash

It is official—after much anticipation, the New York City Council voted to impose a year-long cap on for-hire vehicles and will not issue any new vehicle licenses for the duration of the cap period, although they have made an exception for wheelchair accessible vehicles. (Of which there are not nearly enough.) During the upcoming year, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) will also be tasked with studying whether to adopt vehicle utilization standards or regulations…essentially, they will determine if there should be permanent regulations in place limiting the number of for-hire vehicle licenses issued, much the way that taxi medallions have been regulated for decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Uber and Lyft lobbied pretty hard against this bill, arguing that a cap on the number of vehicles will decrease vehicle availability leading to longer wait times and, possibly, higher fares. Despite their efforts, the bill passed 39-6.

According to the NY Times, the number of for-hire vehicles in the city has increased to 100,000, up from 63,000 in 2015 when Mayor de Blasio tried, and failed, to institute a cap. This time around, there was support not just from taxi drivers who have seen the value of their medallions plummet but also many of the independent contractors who drive for the TNCs. (The Independent Drivers Guild was heavily involved in the campaign to pass the bill.) In addition to imposing a cap on vehicles, the NYC Council also voted in favor of giving the Taxi and Limousine Commission the ability to establish minimum payments for for-hire drivers—a big win for drivers.

For a window into the for-hire driver’s view, I suggest checking out the Independent Drivers Guild’s FAQs about the cap, which provides a easy-to-digest summary of what they’re anticipating the cap will mean. (They anticipate the demand for leasing to skyrocket under the cap as new drivers look for ways to acquire vehicles.) The Rideshare Guy, a go-to source of information for rideshare drivers, also posted a summary of the suite of bills that passed yesterday and how to decipher them.

The passage of these bills comes on the heels of a new report published by Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and former DOT commissioner, who did some serious data crunching and determined that “Private ride TNC services (UberX, Lyft) put 2.8 new TNC vehicles miles on the road for each mile of personal driving removed, for an overall 180 increase in driving on city streets.” He also concludes that TNCs primarily compete with transit, walking, and biking, not other private vehicles. (This does to seem to be in line with a growing body of research that finds that people are using TNCs in place of trips they might otherwise have made by transit, walking, or biking.)

Robin Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, thinks we are far too focused on the trips being replaced by TNCs and are missing the bigger picture: 72% of trips taken are taken by private vehicle. TNCs and taxis only account for 1.2% of total trips nationwide. Why aren’t we asking what other modes people might have used for a trip if they hadn’t used a personal vehicle, she wonders. Presumably some fraction of those personal vehicle trips could have been made by walk, bike, or transit. All of this focus on the impacts that TNCs are having on congestion is glossing over the fact that congestion was already an issue long before TNCs arrived, she argues. Instead, we should institute fair user fees across ALL modes, private vehicles included, which is one of Shared Mobility Principles that have been committed to by a growing number of agencies, private companies, and advocacy groups. (Notably, NYC recently enacted a surcharge for taxis and TNCs in Manhattan for rides south of 96th Street, but did not manage to institute the much-discussed congestion zone, which would have required private vehicles to pay a daily use fee during busy times—with the idea that the funds would help raise money for the subway.)

It will be illuminating to see how the vehicle cap plays out in NYC over the coming year, and what findings the TLC arrive at. But one thing does seem clear…there may be enough political support to cap TNCs in NY but the private vehicle will live to see other another day without a congestion fee or a cap.

 

Shaping Transportation Through Pricing

Cities are beginning to consider the potential impacts that autonomous vehicles will have on their transportation systems and whether those impacts can be shaped to support city goals. A recent article from The Economist explored how pricing can be used to shape the outcomes of autonomous vehicles.

The article offers ways that AVs can mitigate certain negative impacts created by cars over the past century. The negative effects that vehicles and vehicle infrastructure have inflicted upon cites, like congestion, sprawl, and ecological damage, could all be reversed through the reallocation of space that is currently dedicated to cars. Alternatively, these problems could get worse if the use of AVs is not effectively managed.

As the article states, “It all depends on the rules for their use, and in particular the pricing.”

It is suggested that road pricing will become more feasible due to an AV’s ability to recognize where the vehicle is at all times, allowing for better congestion management. Ride pricing can also be used to reduce congestion, making peak trip times more expensive.

In suburban job centers, public transit systems that have prioritized commuter movement into the central city often no longer match commuting trends of the region. While AVs provide a cost-effective opportunity for ride sharing companies or transit systems to move people more efficiently between suburbs, they could also encourage sprawl by allowing people to live even further from their place of work. Again, pricing mechanisms can be used to discourage this behavior.

Lastly, the current auto-oriented transportation system dedicates large amounts of valuable land to parked cars. If AVs reduce the need for parking, this land can be repurposed for higher value uses, and in some cases can even transform the land to provide valuable ecological functions. The Economist argues that the current overuse of space for parking is due to an improper pricing scheme. Essentially, the negative externalities of cars have not been appropriately included in their cost of use. The authors close on the hopeful note that this time around, cities may have learned from their mistakes and will price AVs appropriately to achieve their desired outcomes.

Steph Nappa is a Master’s Candidate in Community and Regional Planning and an Urbanism Next Fellow at the University of Oregon.  She is examining how to re-design city streets to prioritize bicycles, pedestrians and transit in an era of autonomous vehicles.

Online sales can now be taxed after Supreme Court rules in South Dakota v. Wayfair

State and Local budget officers around the country released a collective sigh of relief this week as the Supreme Court ruled in their South Dakota v. Wayfair ruling that online retailers can be forced to collect sales tax. In a ruling from 1992, known as the Quill ruling, the Supreme Court had previously ruled that retailers without a physical presence in a state didn’t have to collect sales tax for catalog orders. The thought for many at that time had been that sales tax collection was too complicated for small catalog (and eventually online) retailers to charge the correct rates and remit payment accurately. As Supreme Court Justice Kennedy noted in his majority opinion, “States may not impose undue burdens on interstate commerce.” In the past, the collection of sales tax was seen as an undue burden on interstate commerce, but with the advent of technology and spread of online retail, this challenge became less and less of a burden.

As the Tax Policy Center points out, this “new” ability of states and local governments to collect taxes is not a new tax at all, but rather this tax revenue is “a tax that most consumers already owe.” (You are typically asked how much you purchase online when you file your income tax return and asked to pay for uncollected sales tax–though most people ignore this request.) As we have previously written about here on the Urbanism Next blog, the amount of tax that has gone uncollected because of the previous Quill ruling, some estimate this to be as high as $34 BILLION annually (for the whole US). In the Wayfair ruling Justice Kennedy was right to note that “Quill creates rather than resolves market distortions. In effect, it is a judicially created tax shelter for businesses that limit their physical presence in a State but sell their goods and services to the State’s consumers, something that has become easier and more prevalent as technology has advanced.” Online retail was/is creating market distortions, as any local retail could have told you for the last 15 years or so. And finally, Kennedy notes that the US government could no longer rely upon an “anachronistic rule that deprives States of vast revenues from major businesses.” This realization that online retail is just retail will help fill holes in state and local budgets that have been growing and growing. The Quill ruling was, for some online retailers, creating an incentive to not invest in brick-and-mortar retail because they didn’t want to comply with the sales tax provisions. With the Wayfair ruling now the law of the land, there may be some real positive outcomes for establishing some physical storefronts online retailers that they had been hesitant to do.

 

Naturally, states that have taken advantage of the no sales tax business are not particularly happy about the ruling. New Hampshire is home to Wayfair and other online retailers has seen its political leaders calling the Wayfair ruling ‘disastrous.’ Perhaps for them, but not for the rest of the country.

 

 

 

 

However, the Wayfair ruling doesn’t resolve all sales tax questions. The Tax Policy Center notes that “While the Court gave states broad leeway to collect sales taxes, it left many questions unanswered. For instance, should tax be collected based on the location of the seller or the buyer? If the latter, should it be based on a billing address or a shipping address? Should small firms be exempt from the requirement to collect tax? If so, how should small be defined?” This means that Congress can and should act soon to clarify these questions so that states and local governments can begin to plan more appropriately for their future. Until Congress acts, the states have the authority to enforce and collect sales taxes as they see fit. For the most part, states have indicated that they will only collect sales taxes for future sales, but that doesn’t mean a state could look backward and collect on sales from prior years. Given that most online retailers didn’t collect the sales tax, they may be liable for paying them nonetheless, which could pose a hardship on those retailers. This backward question seems like one that would be politically hard to justify for many states and local governments, but only time will tell how tenaciously it is enforced.

 

 

 

How is Sidewalk Lab Planning for Toronto’s Transportation Future?

Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet spin-off that’s building a new smart city on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, has just announced that construction will begin in 2020. Given that this new neighborhood is meant to be a pilot project to influence the future of cities across the globe, it seems valid to wonder what Sidewalk Lab’s vision of mobility looks like. A recent “Sidewalk Talk” blog post provides insight through a Q & A with one of Sidewalk Lab’s transportation advisors, David Levinson.

Levinson’s viewpoint can be broken down into three key takeaways:

  1. Pricing will be the number one way to incentivize shared AVs over private AVs. Some of the options include congestion pricing, road pricing, or even creating a new type of traffic violation that fines empty cars for circling the block endlessly.
  2. Curbside management will be a key consideration for cities, but may be most easily managed through flexible uses at different times of day.
  3. Curbside management can be generalized as space reallocation. Fewer, smaller cars that move more efficiently can make room for new uses on the road including bike lanes, bus lanes, and drop-off zones.

The article offers insight into Sidewalk Lab’s vision of traffic enforcement as well, displaying a reliance on cameras and bots to capture and record unwanted behavior. While the official Toronto plans aren’t set to be released for at least another year, several articles have reported the plan includes a heavy use of cameras for data collection and monitoring. The use of cameras may make it easier for cities to collect mobility data rather than relying on data sharing from private companies, but it raises questions about privacy and data security.

This article, as well as Sidewalk Lab’s vision statement, seem to point towards a people-oriented mobility future. However, vision statements and hand-drawn streetscapes don’t always translate into the real world build environment. The world will have to wait until development is complete to see if Toronto’s Eastside Harbor really is a strong example for a sustainable, affordable city of the future.

Steph Nappa is a Master’s Candidate in Community and Regional Planning and an Urbanism Next Fellow at the University of Oregon.  She is examining how to re-design city streets to prioritize bicycles, pedestrians and transit in an era of autonomous vehicles.

 

 

New Report: Rethinking the Street in an Era of Driverless Cars

Communities get few moments to rethink their streets and make decisions that will serve the basic purposes of transportation, address urgent challenges like climate change, rising obesity, social isolation and conflict, and expand opportunities for general happiness throughout society.  Such a pivotal moment is upon us, as autonomous vehicles represent a potentially disruptive technology that can re-make the city for good or for ill.

Urbanism Next has released a new report delineating ways our communities can begin repurposing their most common public space – the streets – to better serve public uses.  Driverless cars may need less parking, narrower lanes, and may be able to occupy bi-directional shared lanes, all leading to a significantly reduced need for road space currently used to move and store vehicles. Where driverless cars are primarily available as fleets where users are buying rides instead of vehicles, the space savings may be more significant.

City planners, policy makers and community residents have a unique, and immediate, opportunity to rethink their streets with purposeful and creative consideration about how this critical public good may best serve the public for generations to come.  Read this Urbanism Next report to learn more.  And to see other Urbanism Next briefs, visit this page.

The Far, Way Off, Hard to Imagine Future of 2019

General Motors just announced that in the far off distance future of 2019 – next year – they are prepared to introduce commercial scale fleets of electric, autonomous vehicles to be used for ride buying, not individual car purchasing.  This may be the most major announcement of its kind to date and significantly accelerates the need for communities to figure out everything, including managing curb drop off and loading, surplus street and surface parking, the re-use opportunities of the public right of way, the impacts on land value and municipal budgets, plus issues of safety, security, etc.

Because the future seemed so, well, far into the future, most communities, from elected leaders to developers to livability advocates, don’t even know where to start in thinking about all of these things.  The GM announcement is not an announcement about just transportation, it is an announcement about everything that has to do with how and where we live, making the upcoming Urbanism Next conference much more critical for all communities, whether in attendance or not.

Town Seizes Control of Its Own Streets

One of the biggest assets any city owns is its streets.  And since no driver likes to be stuck in traffic, the predominant fix to congestion for the last 60 years has been to expand the street right of way to add more lanes.  Time and again, this new road space only leads to more car trips and the very congestion street expansion was supposed to fix.

There are a a lot of new experiments going on across the country about this problem, often by re-allocating some of this public space for other public uses like bike, pedestrian, or transit spaces, or to re-purpose parking and lanes for leisure (think parklets) or ecological function. These types of efforts recognize the trade-offs in use of the street and figure that if a community can’t solve congestion, it can at least provide more efficient transportation alternatives and better use of this public space.

But what if a community simply banned excess cars to eliminate congestion, thereby taking a more active role in the management of its street right of way? Not banned cars to create a car-free utopia, but simply banned excess cars?

This is the idea of Leonia, New Jersey, which is upset by being a vehicle shortcut preferred by navigation systems like Google Maps and Waze. The excess ‘outsiders’ are causing severe traffic issues and the approach of Leonia is to give tickets to anyone outside the community driving in certain areas at certain times.

While I have significant concerns about a city banning outsiders as disturbingly exclusionary, especially on the use of public streets for legal purposes, what is intriguing in this story is the appetite to seize greater control of the public right of way to help carry out the community’s values, which in this case is congestion-free streets.

While the approach of banning outsider’s cars from public streets seems misguided and unnecessary (just do traffic calming to reduce speeds locally and they won’t be attractive for commuters), proactively deciding how the street right of way will be accessed is a critical issue for cities beginning to think about how autonomous vehicles alter their future.

AV companies require access to the right of way to operate and right now may be a unique opportunity for many cities to decide what parts of town are accessible by what types of vehicles. AVs will require local maps that include where they can and cannot go, so while it may not be wise for a community to outlaw non-residents from its public streets, cities can restrict what types of vehicles can go where.

This is an important consideration as autonomous vehicles roll out much faster than most cities are planning for their implications on traffic, land use, or general quality of life issues.  Cities must remember that they own the transportation pipeline – their streets – that AVs will depend on and utilizing this asset to achieve community goals is something that cities can proactively control.

 

AV taxi service coming in 2017 (or maybe 2018, we’ll see)

While GM and Tesla may continue to feud publically about whether or not Teslas are already level 4 or 5 AVs, Waymo/Google is claiming to be MONTHS!! away from starting a taxi service in the Phoenix area. The reports indicate it “ is likely to launch first in Chandler” where Waymo has been testing their vehicles.  The choice of Chandler and Arizona as the testing ground are no accident. The wide streets, few pedestrians, and fewer regulatory hurdles have made this a prime test spot for what many expect to be the future of transportation.

While Arizona law currently relies upon a human to be able to be in charge of the vehicle, Waymo appears to be working around this requirement to have a driver by having a human ‘on call’ remotely that is able to monitor the vehicles to respond when things get “sticky.” The push right now by Google execs is to get the Waymo taxi rolling in 2017, but given how far ahead Waymo appears to be compared to their rivals, slipping the start date to early 2018 probably won’t take away the ‘first to AV’ title.

 

 

 

 

(Sub)Urbanism Next?

In the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, Alan M. Berger of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism poses some interesting questions about the future of suburbs.  Berger assumes that the future “lies on urban peripheries” and offers some innovative ideas for making the suburbs more sustainable.  Coupled with excellent research from scholars like Ellen Dunham-Jones and Emily Talen on retrofitting suburbia, Berger brings a unique perspective on how technology might force changes along the periphery of cities.  In particular, Berger thinks about how drones, self-driving cars, and a smarter landscape will affect suburbs of the future.  As we think about how autonomous vehicles, e-commerce and the sharing economy impact cities, it is also important to consider the urban periphery and think about retrofits and new development.  In particular, it is important to consider how to adopt policies to and regulations to allow for the kind of future Berger suggests.

Seattle’s New Mobility Playbook

The City of Seattle has just put out its ‘New Mobility Playbook’ that has been a while in the making.  It is a great, concise description of where the city is at, the new transportation technologies that are coming, and how the city is preparing for them.  The report covers the pros and cons of the changes that are coming and does a good job of expanding beyond first order transportation impacts to include things like equity and economics.  (Readers of this blog will note a few missing secondary impacts such as impacts on sprawl, density, and land valuation for instance).

One of the strengths of the playbook is that it is clear about the ‘Principles for New Mobility’ (page 32) – these are the guiding ideals for engaging new technologies and they are based on overall city goals, not anything specifically transportation focused.

The report ends with five key ‘plays’ the city is enacting to preparing for coming changes.  This includes ensuring equity, a focus on active/people-first uses of the right-of-way, reorganizing SDOT, managing data, and being nimble, adapting to and leveraging innovation.

Great food for thought for regions who are similarly planning for coming changes in transportation.  Related efforts can learn from this and hopefully expand upon the secondary impacts.  As we have said repeatedly, it is important to frame these coming changes to transportation as not only being about transportation, but instead about all aspects of how cities work and our general quality of life.

More information about Seattle’s efforts can be found on their ‘New Mobility’ page here.

 

The Vehicle Mileage Traveled (VMT) is in Beta

“Unfortunately, motor fuel taxes are an increasingly unsustainable source of revenue as fuel efficient hybrid vehicles and completely electric vehicles grow in popularity” — Courtney Moran and Casey Ball.

Federal motor fuel taxes haven’t been increased since Clinton was in his first term as president. They simply aren’t a sustainable form of revenue to pay for transportation infrastructure.

In this context, a number of states are more realistically testing out what the vehicle mileage traveled (VMT). Brookings Institution has a nice report on the topic here. The researchers found that switching to a VMT “would  raise $55 billion a year for highway spending [and] could increase social welfare by 20 percent when compared to an increase in the gas tax to meet the same goal when taking into account changes in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.”

Washington State legislature has been looking at VMT since 2012. They “think it’s a viable approach, but now it’s time to test it.”  “The one-year study, which will involve 2,000 volunteers, would figure out ways to charge car owners a tax based on how many miles they’ve driven within the state, rather than how much gas was pumped.” They are not only testing out the idea of VMT, but the ways in which people would report the mileage driven. The approaches include:

“A mileage permit, where a driver chooses how many miles to purchase. Odometer readings: A per-mile charge would be based on the vehicle odometer. Automated mileage meter: A device installed in the car would report miles driven. Drivers would choose GPS or not. Smart Phone: A downloadable app would use the driver’s phone to record and/or report miles driven.” Drivers can sign up now to pilot the approach to taxes.

Oregon conducted a similar pilot in 2015, with few pilot subjects continuing to opt for the VMT rather than fuel taxes. California, Pennsylvania, and Delaware are also testing out this idea. It may take a few more years to become mainstream, but the inability of Washington, DC (Congress/President) to do anything on raising fuel taxes, coupled with more fuel-efficient cars using few gallons of gas per mile create a situation where leaders will HAVE to do something (hopefully) sooner rather than later.

 

AVs and Streets – A Guide to Potential Impacts

We have been asked numerous times about how the introduction of AVs (and E-commerce) might affect streets.  As cities make plans for future expansions, changes to their street network, the inclusion of various modes/complete streets, and overall street design – what should they be considering when they include thinking about AVs?

Here is a short list:

Curbside space allocation for pick-up and drop-off – This will become a large issue as demand for this space will increase substantially – especially at peak travel times.  It could also cause significant disruption to transit and bike networks as AVs compete for curbside access and cut across bike and transit lanes.

E-Commerce Delivery – Similar to above, as e-commerce expands, there will demand for curb space and places to temporarily park vehicles as deliveries are made.  In addition, we will probably be seeing a large increase in delivery vehicles (an expansion of a specific kind of freight) which will affect streets and corridors?

Separation of Modes – As AVs have algorithms that don’t allow them to hit people (a fantastic development), a corollary will be that anyone walking or biking in the street can cause mass disruptions to the transportation network.  A “critical mass ride” of one.  This had led to calls for stronger separation between modes – a disastrous proposal – imagine our streets starting to look like China’s where there are fences between modes.

Drones on Streets – Not the flying kind (those are probably further off in the future) but the terrestrial ones.  Picture an Amazon truck parking in a neighborhood and sending off twenty delivery AV rovers.  Will those drive in the street? On the sidewalk?  How will they affect other modes? What should we suggest or try to regulate?

Micro Transit Corridors – Lyft and Uber are pushing shared rides (Lyft-Line and Uber Pool) and are already incentivizing people to make their pick-up and drop-offs happen along arterials or more heavily travelled routes to reduce the vehicles efficiency (see this earlier post).  This will define micro-transit routes throughout the city.  Where will these be? Should cities help define the routes? How will it affect all modes moving through these areas?

Reduction/Elimination of Parking – We are already seeing a reduction of parking use in some venues as Lyft and Uber takeoff (see this earlier post, and this one).  As this happens more and more – research says we will need 10-15% of current parking spaces – what happens to the onstreet parking?  Is it transferred to other modes or additional lanes?  What happens to the buffering role it currently plays in many streets?

Changes to Available ROW – Building on this last point, if AVs need narrower lanes (they are better drivers than we are) and potentially can increase throughput through some streets (see point on this below) and therefore allow a reduction in necessary lanes – how will we use the available ROW.  This is especially critical as available ROW seems to be one of the larger limitations to increasing dedicated infrastructure for transit, bikes, and pedestrians.

Increase in VMT – Most modeling of AVs we have seen show an increase in VMT, but this is more dramatic in scenarios where we all have our own vehicles vs shared fleets.  This is especially so if we don’t tax empty cars (zombie cars) driving around as they wait for their owner or go do errands on their own.  How will this increased VMT affect other modes, congestion, etc? How can we make sure we limit it?

Efficiency of Streets (for cars) – AVs in theory will be more efficient, require less space and be able to move faster.  Many models have been created that show connected vehicles zooming towards each other at intersections and just barely missing as they efficiently move people and goods.  What this fails to recognize is that one of the larger impediments to this type of free-flow movement is the fact that multiple users exist in the right-of-way.  Pedestrians and bikes would not work well in these scenarios.  This leads to thinking that there may be two worlds of cars on streets – those where they dominate (definitely freeways, but will that also start including arterials and collectors…) with free flow of vehicles and other areas where other modes are considered as well.  Will the mixing of modes be frowned upon because it is such a limitation to this efficiency?  Will some areas ban bikes/peds?

Street as a Utility – This is more of a meta-concept, but the idea is that we need to stop thinking of the street as a public space that we can all use whenever and however we want, but instead should think of it as a utility that has limited capacity.  Related to how we pay for the amount and time of our electricity use (in places), we can think of streets similarly.  This might lead to something like a geometry tax (you are charged for how much space you take up on the roadway divided by the number of people in the vehicle – a great deterrent to zombie cars).  — Stay tuned for an upcoming post focused on this topic!

Finance – We have done a quick pass at how these technologies will be affecting municipal revenues and – in short – it will not be pretty or easy (see our report here and see analysis of parking/car related revenue impacts here).  A lot of disruption (for example the drastic reduction of parking fees and traffic tickets while we are needing to pay for retraining large groups of the population who used to work in retail or driving jobs). Limited budgets will affect everything else government tries to do and services it provides – streets included.

 

Parking garages are already becoming dinosaurs

I’m seeing a giant meteor coming that will, metaphorically speaking, put a huge hole in municipal budgets. This meteor will be AVs. The meteor that pushed dinosaurs to extinction may have done so with one big hit, the AV evolution might be a bit slower. A recent article in Governing Magazine provides us with evidence that the impact of AVs is being foreshadowed by the likes of Uber and Lyft (often collectively referred to as TNC or transportation network companies).

Airport managers nationwide are expressing concern in how the TNC are disrupting the budget models that airports have long had in place. Carter Morris (VP with the American Association of Airport Executives) has stated that “airports need to adapt and do it quickly.” Many airports have seen dramatic drops in fees collected from taxi companies and car rental companies because so many people are just using the TNCs instead. So now more than 200 airports nationwide are charging pick-up and/or drop off fees for the TNCs, just as they might have with taxis—though the exact revenue models are quite varied. As fee revenues decline, airports may look to airlines to pay more, which could drive them away from the small/medium size airports.

And if you are wondering how much of an impact TNCs are having on the ground transportation game, look no further than “San Francisco International Airport, where TNCs accounted for more than two-thirds of commercial ground transportation in May.” Lyft and Uber are preparing for an AV future, airports should too!

To learn more about the impact of AVs on municipal budgets in the Urbanism Next report coming out in late July. You’ll find a link to the report here on the blog.

Federal AV Legislation???

There seems to be a push for federal AV legislation as the GOP is putting a package of bills forward on this topic.  Of issue for Urbanism Next topics is that the bills continue the national trend of dealing with AV regulation in terms of how to accommodate the autonomous vehicle and not on the secondary effects these vehicles will have on our cities.  The GOP package is focused on how the vehicles themselves will be regulated and permitted – for instance, a draft of the bills have an exemption of up to 100,000 vehicles per manufacturer from federal motor safety vehicle rules.

A big question here is what role the feds and/or the states will have in regulation.  A good argument can be made about the problems with a patchwork of regulations across different states that are both cumbersome to manufacturers and a burden for the states themselves to develop – especially with so many unknowns about how this technology will play out.  National leadership makes sense, but we are in a strange situation where this technology is advancing very quickly and therefore giving the states the ability to work more nimbly at a more local level may be prudent.

Again – in relation to Urbanism Next concerns, we would not want to see federal regulations that limit states’ ability to create and experiment with incentives and potential taxation structures that will help promote community benefits.  The goal is to make great places to live and to improve quality of life (and figuring out how AVs fit into that picture), not just to get AVs on the road.

(UPDATE:  A more recent article tracking the mark-up of the package of bills is here)

 

AV developers planning for a future without major roadway improvements

A key issue facing cities, states, and the federal government as they ponder the AV future, how do we properly prepare the roadways for AVs? Some suggest putting sensors on roads, but in an already fiscally constrained environment the idea of spending more on our roads for technology that is not yet fully functional is a non-starter.

The major players in AVs today are, not surprisingly, fully aware of this reality. This is why these companies are developing technology to adapt to current roads and current driving conditions rather than pushing for new technology. “Uber, Waymo, Ford, General Motors and others, all of whom have targeted around 2021 for the unveiling of fleets of ride-hailing focused self-driving cars, are developing vehicles with sensors and mapping systems that won’t rely on roadway upgrades.”

And while building smarter roads would make for safer and easier AV travel, it is clear that companies like Ford understand that “you can’t count on that being there, which is why our technical approach is to build the capability completely on the vehicle,” says VP of research and advanced engineering Ken Washington.

The forthcoming Urbanism Next white paper will cover a range local government secondary effects that we expect to see arising from the introduction of AVs. Look for it in the coming weeks.

 

To Mix or Not Mix, That is the Question

The deployment and impacts of autonomous vehicles, the sharing economy, and e-commerce are going to impact different parts of metro areas differently.  How street space is planned in the suburbs will be much different than in denser, mixed use urban areas or nodes.  For the walkable or bikeable places of our cities – which are increasingly in demand – it is not clear how to make a workable mix of autonomous vehicles and walking/biking human beings.  One solution is to completely segregate the modes since any human can stop a vehicle simply by being present in front of it.  Another approach is to criminalize that behavior (vehicles will have cameras and spatial location and knowledge of traffic light status, after all, making it easy to take a picture and send an automated ticket), and another option is to simply eliminate the car from urban spaces and prioritize walking, biking, and transit since they are the most efficient ways of getting about (and healthy, less polluting, and happy-making).  This article from the Guardian nicely frames these issues.  Which alternate future do you want?

US Federal Government taking more steps toward more robust AV policy

Writing software to navigate the driving characteristics, challenges, and rules of cities around the world is clearly a challenge. Some in the automobile industry are nudging the US Department of Transportation to develop more specific policies for AVs. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has indicated that a new set of voluntary guidelines will be issued by the end of 2018—though they will remain voluntary.

Ford Motor VP Ken Washington is asking the US federal government to do more:
We must have concrete federal guidelines and additional data to inform how we will bring this technology to market in a way that will cause more good than harm.”
Much of current the current talk of AV policy has surrounded the technical aspects of AVs—with very little attention paid to the secondary effects of AVs. Faculty, staff, and students with Urbanism Next are taking this gap in attention seriously. We will be releasing one of the first looks at secondary effects on local government budgets (expenditures and revenues) later this month.

Engineering scholars recognize the complexity of the urban environments as one of their key challenges moving forward as well. For example, they recognize, as compared to highways, AVs in cities require “progress in both transport technology and infrastructure to effectively deal with the increase in operating velocity of autonomous systems as well as the complexity of urban environments…. Different cities have different driving characteristics and traffic rules, and therefore what works in one environment, may need a lot of refinements if it’s applied to a different environment.”

AVs are going to be a global phenomenon, thus adaptation to AVs will take on many forms and we are now at the moment in time where we have the potential to have the most impact on how cities adapt or shape their future with AVs.

When Single Occupancy Vehicles Looked Successful

The typical U.S. commute trip fills a multi-seat car with a single human being (25% of capacity) and that car sits idle most of its existence (90% of the time).  This is an inefficient use of our limited roadway capacity, land for storing vehicles, dispersed settlement pattern and provision of services/utilities, use of fossil fuels, etc. But imagine if we look back at the single occupancy vehicle as a golden age of efficiency?

Autonomous Vehicles don’t need drivers, meaning that if we own them personally, many trips by car will be taken with no one inside.  An AV could drop you off at the market and circle the block until you are done.  It could drop you off at work and return home or other remote parking space.  An AV could be summoned to pick up your child at school and take her to soccer practice.  While there is certainly some convenience in any of these scenarios, a good portion of all those trips will have no occupants and thereby taking up limited and valuable space on the street.

This article by Howard Jennings of Mobility Lab discusses three ways to apply the principles of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) to AVs: 1) “policies should always seek to encourage AVs that move more people in fewer vehicles”; 2) “pricing models offered by automotive and tech companies should be structured to make shared AVs, not personal AVs, the model of choice”; and 3) city pricing models should be structured to disincentives the least efficient mode of transportation. including a fee for zero occupancy vehicles.