Could driverless cars cause more congestion in urban cores?

|     Ashley Halsey III, The Washington Post     |

AS THE era of driverless cars looms, a new Boston-based study suggests the vehicles may increase traffic congestion in downtown areas as more people embrace ride-hailing services and abandon transit.

The same study also found, however, that driverless vehicles could dramatically improve traffic conditions in the suburbs.

The study by the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group is based on a simple premise, backed by 10 months of research and one of the most specific surveys done on autonomous cars: As the cost of using services such as Uber and Lyft comes down because the companies no longer need to pay drivers, people who take mass transit will opt for door-to-door service rather than the bus or subway.

“If it’s the same price or only slightly more, plus I don’t have to walk to the station, I don’t have to worry about carrying an umbrella, I don’t have to check schedules, I don’t have to connect, why would anyone take the train?” said Augustin Wegscheider, one of the report’s authors.

Why might that cause 5.5 per cent more congestion in downtown Boston? Because raid-hailing fleet vehicles will begin to replace private cars.

An engineer looks inside a Hyundai Motor Co Nexo autonomous fuel cell electric vehicle in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 20. – WP-BLOOM

“You might have fewer vehicles on the road, but the vehicles that are on the road are operating 12 hours a day,” Wegscheider said. “The average car in Boston is operated for something like 12 minutes a day.”

The study underscores, he said, “that unless you put the right policies in place to actively manage the adoption of (autonomous vehicles), congestion might actually get worse”.

The answer there, the study said, is that those policies must encourage people to share autonomous vehicles provided by ride-hailing companies.

“One of the answers is getting more people in the car,” Wegscheider said. “If you ask consumers, ‘Would you do that?’ they say, ‘Hell, no, I’m not going to share a car with strangers’, but if it costs USD2 instead of USD7, they say, ‘Okay’.”

The situation will be very different in most suburbs, the study found, where ride-hailing services “will mainly replace the use of personal cars rather than mass transit, and travel time will decrease by 12.1 per cent”.

“There, the trade-off is instead of sitting in traffic for a 10-mile trip and dealing with it myself and paying USD30 for parking in the city every day, I could invest those USD30 in the ride service and use the time productively,” Wegscheider said.

And the mass transit vs ride-hailing service that applies in urban centres won’t clog suburban streets.

“If I take the train for an hour now for USD6, even if the Lyft price comes down from USD80 to USD40 (for the same trip), it’s still a trade-off between USD40 and USD6,” he said. “People will still ride the train.”

The study also found that the advent of autonomous cars has much broader acceptance in congested cities abroad than it does in the United States, where a deeply rooted car culture engenders scepticism about relinquishing the steering wheel.

The report surveyed 5,500 drivers in 27 cities around the world, finding that slightly more than half of Americans said they want to ride in a driverless car. In two counties where the number of cars has exploded in recent years – China and India – 75 to 85 per cent of people said they would welcome autonomous vehicles.

The difference, Wegscheider said, is that the United States has a much more established car culture.

“Some people would go from walking or mainly riding a bike to an autonomous vehicle,” he said, “rather than a person who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit who said, ‘I’ve been driving all my life’.”

Wegscheider said he is distrustful of many surveys about whether people are ready to embrace driverless cars.

“You can Google a study that says 80 per cent of people are scared of (autonomous vehicles) and you can just as easily find a study that says 80 per cent of people are excited about (autonomous vehicles). I find neither of those mean anything,” he said. “We tried to make it, in these very specific situations, ‘You’re going to work, it’s a 10-mile trip, you’re travelling by yourself at 7am, it’s raining, you have these eight options at the following costs and the following trip experience, which one do you take?’” – WP-BLOOM