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Autonomous cars could worsen traffic

Dynamic pricing, dedicated lanes and redesign of the curb may help ensure autonomous vehicles deliver maximum value

Cities cannot follow a wait-and-see approach towards autonomous vehicles
Cities cannot follow a wait-and-see approach towards autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will increase, not decrease, traffic in already overcrowded downtowns is the stark warning issued in a study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG).


The joint study conducted with the city of Boston shows that while shared AVs will reduce the number of cars and overall travel times in cities, the effect is not evenly distributed and it will potentially worsen traffic and increase travel times in downtown areas.


According to the Reshaping Urban Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles: Lessons from the City of Boston, AVs will further clog city centres unless lawmakers step up. The study calls for city and state governments to intervene and to encourage sharing of AVs and avoid significant substitution for mass-transit systems, which remain essential for urban mobility throughput.


“Cities can’t follow a ‘wait and see’ approach towards autonomous vehicles,” said John Moavenzadeh, a member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum and co-author of the report.


“Cities need to actively explore policies and incentives, such as dynamic pricing, dedicated lanes, and redesign of the curb, to ensure that autonomous vehicles will achieve the full value for society that they promise. If such choices are not made, cities risk losing more than they will gain from autonomous vehicles.”


A traffic simulation model for the City of Boston showed that both the number of vehicles on the road and travel times would decidedly change. While neighbourhoods outside the downtown core, such as Allston, would see a reduction in traffic and decreased travel time, travellers downtown will face increased traffic and travel time.


The study also indicated that a shift to autonomous mobility would reduce the number of parking spaces required in Boston by almost half (48 per cent) which unlocks tremendous opportunities to rethink streets and overall urban design.


The team conducted a large-scale conjoint analysis asking thousands of Boston-area residents what types of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles they were likely to drive in certain situations (such as going to work when it is raining).


The analysis predicts a clear shift toward mobility-on-demand (both autonomous vehicles like robo-shuttles and non-autonomous vehicles like today’s taxi and ride-share services), which will account for one third (30 per cent) of all trips in the greater Boston area (up from seven per cent today) and 40 per cent of trips within the city limits in the future.


Results of this consumer study were used as the input assumptions for the traffic simulation model.


Policymakers must anticipate that the impact of AVs will vary not just city by city but neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the study concluded. Policies and incentives will be needed to foster the technology’s innovation while ensuring that the benefits far outweigh the challenges.


Potential levers to improve city-wide travel time include:

  • Introduction of occupancy-based pricing schemes to discourage riding alone, which could improve travel time by 15 per cent
  • Conversion of what was once on-street parking to dedicated pick-up or drop-off areas, surface mass transit, or driving lanes, which could lead to a decrease in travel time of 10 per cent
  • Designation of dedicated lanes for shared AVs, which could decrease travel time by 8 per cent.

“Autonomous mobility on demand provides a very convenient door-to-door service with a guaranteed seat and convenient mobile booking, all at very competitive prices,” added Nikolaus Lang, a senior partner at BCG and a co-author of the report.


“For trips shorter than four miles, it is likely that travellers would opt for low-capacity autonomous taxis or shuttles rather than taking high-capacity mass-transit options like buses or trains.”


This in turn would increase the number of cars on the road and average travel time by 5.5 per cent in Boston’s downtown neighbourhood.


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