Category: Policy approaches

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.