This is a guest post from reader Frank McRae
The emergence of driverless vehicle technology has created much excitement, and speculation about how these vehicles will affect the development of cities. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal claimed that a major consequence of driverless vehicles will be the outward sprawl of cities (Driverless cars to fuel suburban sprawl):
Here is the weirdest thing about this hypothetical future: where you live….you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.
..there is something akin to a law of nature about new transportation technology: The faster humans move, the bigger and more sprawling our cities become.
While it is true that lower transport costs and faster travel speeds will generally incentivise the outward spread of the city there are other forces at play. I want to put forward the case that the outward spread of cities will not be an inevitable feature of driverless cars and that these vehicles can complement the ongoing intensification of cities.
Driverless cars are not viable without road pricing
Driverless technology will remove the labour cost of driving, and electric vehicle technology will significantly reduce the cost of fuel. While we don’t currently have road pricing, fuel and labour impose costs on the user that practically limit the amount of time their vehicle can be on the road. If there were driverless vehicles but no road pricing then the vehicles could be left on the road at almost no cost. Indeed if parking is priced, and road space for moving vehicles is not, then leaving vehicles circling the block with no occupant would be the rational thing to do. What would be the point of paying for parking or storage when empty vehicles could be left roaming the streets for free? It’s easy to imagine roads quickly descending into gridlock when the cost of leaving a vehicle on the road is so low. Road pricing would be a simple way to clear the roads of circling drive-bots.
While road pricing is a difficult political sell, the politics may shift when the alternative to pricing is completely dysfunctional roads. People generally don’t like paying for parking either, but it is politically palatable to charge for parking in centres when the alternative is the unavailability of parking spaces. Road pricing may become politically palatable when the alternative is roads gridlocked with autonomous vehicles.
Driverless cars will also improve the viability of road pricing by making it practically easy to calculate the distance travelled and to implement time of day charging. And driverless vehicles would remove the privacy case against GPS based road pricing as, for better or worse, users of on-demand driverless vehicles will already be giving up their privacy to the service provider.
Finally, electric powering will require a new source of funding to replace the fuel excise which goes towards funding the maintenance and upgrade of roads. Distance based road pricing can replace the fuel excise in a way that provides a much better link between funding and demand for infrastructure.
This distance based road pricing will provide a disincentive against living in outer suburbs.
Driverless cars will disrupt car ownership
Driverless cars will mostly be used through on-demand services. Uber has already provided the model for this, and it will not be a huge stretch to extend Uber’s model to driverless vehicles. Indeed Uber is already a major investor in driverless technology and is launching an autonomous taxi service in the US city of Pittsburgh.
If it is possible to get an affordable ride on-demand then why would anyone bother with the storage, insurance, and maintenance costs of car ownership? It seems likely that a major effect of the driverless revolution will be the end of car ownership for the majority of people. This disruption of car ownership will significantly reduce the need for car parking spaces. This has significant implications for the development of the city.
Driverless cars will remove the parking and traffic constraints on dense development
The need to accommodate parking sets design limitations on development, and minimum parking requirements create a regulatory barrier to intensifying housing where demand is highest. These limitations can reduce the financial viability of intensified developments. If on-demand driverless vehicles disrupt car ownership, development can be freed from these constraints.
Additionally, a major source of “community” objection to development is the effect of new dwellings on local parking availability and congestion. For example, a recently proposed development for an apartment tower in Glen Eden was opposed by the Local Board because of the potential traffic generation.
This is just one example but almost every development in Auckland (and elsewhere) is objected to on the grounds of traffic and parking. Also parking and congestion are a significant justification for the planning rules that limit density in the first place.
On-demand driverless vehicles will remove the real and perceived constraint that parking places on development. And the increased efficiency of driverless vehicles combined with road pricing will undermine using traffic as a reason for limiting and objecting to intensive development.
Electric vehicles will improve the amenity of central suburbs
A major drawback of living centrally, and at density, in a car dominated city like Auckland is the air quality and noise disamenity caused by cars. The electric technology used in driverless vehicles will remove these problems making inner city suburbs a more pleasant place to live.
On-demand ride services will be better in the inner city than outer suburbs
Driverless technology will not change the fact that trips to outer suburbs will take longer and be more expensive than those in the inner city. And while passengers will be freed from the burden of driving themselves, driverless cars are unlikely to change people’s ultimate tolerance for being stuck in a vehicle for more than an hour.
Though it is difficult to predict what a ride in a taxi-bot will cost, an article in Bloomberg suggests that the average cost could be as low as 44 (US) cents per mile (1.6km). But the cost per kilometre could be much higher in outer suburbs to reflect the reduced likelihood of the vehicle picking up a return fare. So outer suburban travellers will not only have to pay a higher fare to reflect the greater distance, they may also have to pay for it at a higher rate.
The service is also likely to be of a lower quality in outer suburbs, with longer wait times due to the lower density of potential passengers. Higher density inner suburbs will have a larger pool of potential passengers and hence shorter wait times for a ride.
Trying to make predictions about an unpredictable future can be a foolish task, and many of the predictions made about driverless cars have been foolish indeed (Dump the cycleways – how driverless cars will save the world). But the impact driverless cars will have on the development of the city is not inevitable. As always, much of this depends on the policy settings we adopt. Driverless cars will not necessarily accelerate exurban sprawl and with the right policies there is plenty to suggest that these vehicles can complement the intensification of cities well.