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How to Reduce Emissions and Congestion While Preparing for a Just Transition to Self-Driving Cars

How to Reduce Emissions and Congestion While Preparing for a Just Transition to Self-Driving Cars
How to Reduce Emissions and Congestion While Preparing for a Just Transition to Self-Driving Cars
January 16, 2019   //   

By Daniel Malarkey

Cascadia’s cities could benefit immensely from electric robo-taxi service someday if we get the public policies right but we don’t know exactly when autonomous car service will arrive. In the meantime, we need an action agenda to address our current transportation problems that also enables a just transition to self-driving cars.

To kick off 2019, I propose the following slate of sensible reforms that would reduce transportation emissions and congestion today and also lay the policy foundation for an equitable, zero-emission, and congestion-free future with autonomous vehicles.

Implement congestion pricing  

In the mid-1950s, Vancouver, BC, native and Nobel laureate William Vickrey came up with a simple solution to urban congestion: charge drivers the cost of the delay that they impose on others. Drivers pay their own congestion costs because they are stuck in traffic along with everyone else, but they don’t pay for the delay they cause other drivers. If confronted with the true social cost of their decision to drive during congested periods, some people would defer trips to other periods and some people would choose to share a ride on public transit or in a car pool. Set the price high enough and congestion goes away.

Congestion pricing also creates a positive feedback loop for transit because it increases demand for train and bus travel, which allows transit agencies to lower waiting times, which attracts yet more riders. Pricing also gives transportation asset owners valuable information about when demand for a new facility is sufficiently high to pay for adding new road or transit capacity. If road owners were to set “efficient” prices, we could eliminate the worst congestion and have a funding source to maintain and improve our transportation system.

Although long dismissed by pragmatic planners as technically and politically unfeasible, Singapore, London, and Stockholm currently operate with congestion pricing. New York City has a broad coalition of supporters advocating for road pricing, with a public vote coming this year. Policymakers in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver are all considering congestion pricing and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has gone so far as to set a target date of 2021 for a trial run. Companies like Uber now champion variable road pricing as the best solution to urban congestion.

This year, we at Sightline plan a deep dive into congestion pricing research and policy development as the cornerstone of a more sustainable transportation system.

Help people displaced by artificial intelligence technology

Angry people in Arizona have pelted Waymo’s self-driving cars with rocks and slashed their tires. Waymo downplays the significance of about two dozen incidents in the context of millions of miles of testing, but recent experiences with automation in other parts of the economy explain some of the anger. Thomas Edsall last month reviewed the literature on how the deployment of robots in manufacturing has damaged the prospects of displaced workers and the communities where they live. Any just transition to autonomous robo-taxis must have a plan to help drivers replace lost income and find pathways to new employment.   

Invest in charging infrastructure for electric vehicles with high utilization

The total cost of ownership for electric vehicles is already below internal combustion engines in many applications. It creates money-saving opportunities for transit agencies, public and private fleet operators, and transportation network companies that make the switch. State and local governments and utility regulators should align policies and funding to accelerate the shift to electric vehicles. There’ll be more bang for the buck if public dollars go primarily to support electrification of vehicles that spend lots of time on the road rather than private cars that drive less than 12,000 miles per year.

Statewide regulations for Uber and Lyft with goals for limiting emissions  

Washington and Oregon now regulate transportation network companies (TNCs) at the city level, unlike most other states. Differing local regulations can inhibit ride hailing services from providing service across city lines, raising costs and limiting options for consumers. Uber and Lyft have lobbied Salem and Olympia in recent legislative sessions for statewide regulations but skeptics prefer the status quo. Thoughtful statewide regulations could ultimately better serve local and state interests and also provide leverage for better environmental outcomes, as California demonstrated last year with new a new law to limit emissions from TNCs.

Coordinate and optimize public and private transit services

Public transit agencies operating trains and buses could partner more effectively with private transportation companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime and Reach Now to divvy up the transportation market so each serves the trip best suited to their respective technologies. Serving low-ridership bus routes with private transit providers could free up resources to improve public bus service on crowded routes.

Rethink how we use curb space in cities   

Cycling, deliveries, pick-ups, drop-offs and parking all compete for curb space. Demand for curb space has been soaring with the rapid growth of e-commerce delivery and ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft. A December 2018 study by the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab revealed that 47 percent of commercial vehicles parked in downtown Seattle were parked in unauthorized areas. Commercial vehicles occupied passenger load only zones 35 percent of the time. We need new approaches to authorize, prioritize, and enforce curb use among so many competing needs. Pricing probably has role to play here, too.

Remove parking quotas on new buildings

Requiring new buildings to include parking makes them more expensive to build, decreases supply, raises rents, and adds to sprawl that’s hard to serve with transit. Last year, Minneapolis and San Francisco got rid of parking quotas. We can,  too.

Protect the public from companies testing AVs on public roads    

We need better rules for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in Cascadia. In Arizona, one of Waymo’s attackers claimed their vehicle had nearly run over his son in a cul de sac. After Uber’s pedestrian fatality earlier in the year, it is past time to bring a sheriff into the Wild West world of testing AVs. The Governors Highway Safety Association has some reasonable proposals; let’s adopt them in statute.