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Tolling Points

Autonomous Vehicles Depend on Redesigned Cities

By: 
Bill Cramer

A renowned urban planner is throwing a dash of cold water on the cascading drive toward connected and autonomous vehicles. And he’s doing it with a callback to some things tolling agencies have known for a very long time.

Berkeley, California urban planner Peter Calthorpe isn’t opposed to the technological innovation that is taking the tolling industry and the wider transportation community by storm. But he’s second-guessing the intense Silicon Valley hype that, in his view, pushes forward a bright, shiny new innovation before thinking out the consequences—or the factors that will actually drive (or undercut) its success.

After all is said and done, all the technologies are honed, the business models shaped, and the safety and ethical issues worked out, the issue Calthorpe sees determining the success, failure, and impact of autonomous vehicles is the number of passengers onboard, The New York Times reports. You would almost think he comes from a jurisdiction that pioneered high-occupancy highway lanes, then led the world on managed lanes.

It’s All About Urban Form

Indeed, he does. But Calthorpe’s thinking is driven by more than just his zip code.

Calthorpe “is one of the creators of New Urbanism, which promotes mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. His designs emphasize the proximity of housing, shopping and public space,” the Times writes. While he isn’t opposed to autonomous vehicles, his “quarrel is with the idea that the widespread adoption of personally owned self-driving cars will solve transportation problems. In fact, he worries it will lead to more urban congestion and suburban sprawl.”

Zero- and single-occupant vehicles, Calthorpe and transportation planner Jerry Walters of Fehr & Peers wrote last year, “cause congestion, eat up energy, exacerbate sprawl and emit more carbon per passenger-mile.” In contrast to advocates’ fervent hope that the autonomous revolution will mean fewer cars, faster commutes and transformed cities, Calthorpe’s modelling indicates that the shift will mean more congestion if the vehicles are used the way most cars are today—for single-occupant trips.

“The key distinction is the number of people per vehicle,” Walters told the Times. “Without pretty radically increasing the number of people per vehicle, autonomous systems will increase total miles traveled.”

And that’s not all. As autonomous vehicles become affordable, Walters warned they’ll pull riders away from public transit—just as some analysts say ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft are doing today. That, too, will drive VMT to new highs.

Doing Cities Differently

Instead, Calthorpe suggests shifts in urban planning to address the connection he’s discovered between housing costs and availability and congestion. Similar to what any managed lane developer will tell you, it all comes down to density—in the built environment and along roadways.

With more concentrated housing, Calthorpe would deploy fleets of autonomous rapid transit vans along dedicated roadways that sound an awful lot like the next generation of today’s managed lanes. Once it came time for financing and business planning, those projects might well benefit from the kind of innovative partnership the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority developed to twin tolling with bus rapid transit.

The New York Times says Calthorpe’s accent is on transit-oriented development is already resonating with transit and transportation funding advocates. “Autonomous rapid transit’s greater capacity combined with lower cost could really be the stimulus for the housing development,” said MOVE LA Executive Director Denny Zane. “We need to integrate autonomous technologies in a setting that will enhance transit use.”

IBTTA’s Annual Technology Summit, March 31-April 2, 2019, is your one-stop source for the latest on transportation innovation. Mark your calendar today!

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