January 2019

No matter how you get to work, chances are you’ve spent at least a handful of hours frustrated by the commute. At some point, construction, poor weather, or simply congested roadways have taken valuable hours from all of our days. Given the constant annoyance of bad traffic, it is unsurprising that people get excited about any technology that may reduce the problem. Such was at least part of the hope for ridesharing technologies like Uber and Lyft.

To date, that hope has been at least premature, if not misplaced entirely. Recent studies have shown that the introduction of Uber and Lyft to a city actually increases traffic. A study by transportation analyst Bruce Schaller found that popular ridesharing apps were responsible for 51% of the increase in traffic in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016. Results in other major metro areas were similar.

The increased traffic appears to be primarily attributable to two things. First, rideshare drivers spend around 40% of their road time between passengers, merely taking up space on the road without moving customers where they want to go. Second, Schaller’s research suggests that the convenience of ridesharing has increased the total number of trips taken. He finds that 60% of trips taken with rideshare apps replace trips for which people would have either taken public transit, biked, walked, or simply not made the trip. Uber and Lyft dispute some of Schaller’s methods, arguing that he does not adequately account for factors like increased tourism and freight delivery as causes of increased congestion.

Even if some of the companies’ criticisms are valid, the challenges of passenger-less rideshare vehicles and rideshare trips replacing non-car travel are almost certainly both real. It is possible that, as Uber, Lyft, and others collect more data about patterns of mobility, they will be able to effectively limit the amount of time their cars are on the road with no passengers. By contrast, increased traffic due to rideshare replacement of non-car travel will not be abated by the companies alone. Their incentives align with reducing the amount of time drivers have no passenger in the car, but not with ceding a share of their market to public transit or other modes of transportation.

The challenge of rideshare trips replacing non-car travel will require affirmative government action to overcome. Broadly, cities may take one of two paths, or a combination of both. First, they can design their infrastructure and public transit systems in such a way as to make walking or public transportation a more attractive option for the individual consumer than a solo car trip. Second, they may choose to limit the number of rideshare vehicles allowed on the road. Such a program would be similar to the grant of a set number of taxi medallions. Some cities, such as Chicago, have begun charging a tax on Uber and Lyft rides specifically to help fund improved public transportation. Such a scheme may enable the city to keep its other transit options competitive with rideshare and reduce overall traffic congestion.

To date, the growth of Uber and Lyft present a cautionary tale for tech optimists. On one hand, the growth of these companies has presented riders with a convenient way to travel, and has enabled some people to forgo owning their own car. However, there is evidence that the explosion of vehicles on the road has dramatically increased traffic congestion in the nation’s largest cities. While some of the traffic problems may be solved as the companies continue to collect data, it will likely take affirmative action by local governments to make other transportation options more compelling and abate the worst of the traffic problem.

To date, twenty-nine states have enacted legislation related to connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). Eleven governors have issued executive orders designed to set guidelines for and promote the adoption of CAVs. In response to this patchwork of state laws, some experts have argued that the federal government should step in and create a uniform set of safety regulations.

Partially responding to such concerns, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued A Vision for Safety 2.0 in September, 2018. The guidance document contains voluntary guidance for the automotive industry, suggesting best practices for the testing and deployment of CAVs. It also contains a set of safety-related practices for states to consider implementing in legislation.

The NHTSA document is likely to have some effect on the development of safety practices for the testing and deployment of automated vehicles. While not mandatory, the guidance does give the industry some indication of what the federal government is thinking. Some companies may take this document as a sign of what they will be required to do if and when the Congress passes CAV legislation, and begin to prepare for compliance now. Furthermore, this nudge from the federal government could influence state action, as legislators with limited expertise on the subject look to NHTSA for guidance in drafting their CAV bills.

Without new legislation however, the force of NHTSA’s guidance will be blunted. No manufacturer is required to follow the agency’s views, and state legislatures are free to continue passing conflicting laws. Such conflicts among states could make it difficult to design a vehicle that is able to meet all state standards and travel freely throughout the country. To date, this has not been an acute problem because CAVs, where they are deployed, operate only within a tightly limited range. As use of these vehicles expands however, uniform standards will begin to appear more necessary.

A late push for CAV legislation in the last Congress petered out in the December lame duck session. After unanimously passing the House in 2017, the bill stalled when Senate Democrats balked at what they saw as its lack of sufficient safety protections. With Congress’ schedule blocked by the government shutdown, CAV legislation has been put on the back burner so far in 2019. At some point though, Congress is likely to take up a new bill. The Senators who were key drivers of the CAV bill in the past Congress, Gary Peters (D-MI) and Jon Thune (R-SD) remain in the Senate. Both Senators retain their influential positions on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The key change from the previous Congress will be the dynamic in the newly Democratic-controlled House. While a bill passed unanimously last term, it remains to be seen whether the new House will be held back by the same consumer safety concerns that led the Senate to reject the bill last term.

As autonomous vehicle technology continues to march forward, and calls for a uniform nationwide regulatory system are expected to grow. We will be following major developments.

Welcome to 2019! Over the past several months, this page has focused a lot on deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) in US cities. 2018 was indeed a big year for CAVs in the United States. The vehicles were deployed commercially in Arizona, California began to allow testing of the technology without a safety driver, and policymakers and urban planners across the nation thought seriously about how to integrate CAVs into their existing transportation grid.

Running through much of this work is the fear that, if left unchecked, wide-scale deployment of CAVs will kick off an accelerated version of the problems associated with the initial popularization of the automobile – suburban sprawl, increased congestion, deeper economic inequality, and more. Most American cities have proposed addressing these issues – to the extent they have considered them at all – through modest incentive programs. To kick off the new year, I want to briefly examine a city that has taken a much more aggressive tack on curtailing the problems associated with sprawl and traffic.

Even before the widespread adoption of CAVs, Singapore is moving beyond modest incentives to combat congested roads. The city of nearly 6 million people charges commuters nearly $15,000 per year to own a vehicle and use it during rush hour. In 2017, Singapore took the extreme step of announcing a freeze in the growth rate of private car ownership. While such measures seem exorbitant from an American perspective, they have contributed to reduced congestion. Singapore in 2015 was less congested than the year before, and suffered less congestion than cities such as New York, London, or Beijing. Only around 11% of Singapore’s population owns a car, in comparison to 46% of New York City residents and nearly 90% of Angelenos.

The city is also taking steps to prepare for a future dominated by CAVs. Singapore recently removed a requirement that cars have human drivers, and has mandated that all new development meets standards that accommodate CAVs while discouraging car ownership. These new real estate requirements include narrow streets, road markings designed to be easily recognizable by CAVs, and fewer parking spaces.

Such aggressive maneuvers are out of sync with policy across the United States. Many US cities have created carpool lanes to encourage ride-sharing, and Oregon has experimented with a per-mile charge to reduce congestion and plug infrastructure funding gaps that have traditionally been filled with a gas tax. However, such programs have typically been modest. Perhaps most strikingly, in comparison to Singapore’s large yearly fees, the average annual tax levied on vehicle ownership in the US comes in at a little over $200.

In many parts of the US, abundant cheap land and low vehicle taxes set the stage for suburban sprawl and maddening levels of congestion brought on by the first automobile revolution. The same factors are aligned to accelerate these problems in the upcoming CAV revolution. None of this is to say that the Singaporean approach is right for the US. It is certainly possible that, as CAVs are deployed nationwide, their benefits will outweigh any social cost brought on by sprawl and congestion. When setting their own policy though, our cities should examine a full range of options, including places like Singapore that are modeling a more aggressive regulatory posture. Regardless of the approach we choose to take, there are valuable lessons to learn from countries that approach these challenges from a different governance tradition.