Is Disaster Looming? Self-Driving Cars, Congestion, and Public Transport

Uber self-driving car in Pittsburg CC by iwasaround
Self-driving cars will be awesome. They will make it possible to take cab rides for less than it would cost to drive your own car—because you won't need to pay for insurance, taxes, and depreciation while the car sits in your driveway. They promise to make much more efficient use of resources, free up urban space, and allow everyone to get work done while being chauffered around. But how will they affect congestion and public transport systems? To prevent the dream of self-driving cars from turning into a nightmare, we will need to make some changes.

Self-driving cars will make car ownership unnecessary. They will also free up time we would've spent driving to do something else. They will also be safer: Computers don't get distracted the way people do—even though the idea of having no thinking, adapting human behind the wheel may be unnerving. Finally, they will free up loads of space in cities, since fewer people will need to own cars and park them near where they're used. Parking lots and garages will become obsolete, making room for parks, homes, offices, and shops. Self-driving cars' cheapness and convenience will also pose some problems, however. Even now, I sometimes choose Uber over public transport in Boston because it's faster, more convenient, and often not that much more expensive. Self-driven taxis will be even cheaper. If loads of people ride to work in cars rather than buses, subways, and trains, congestion will result even as public transport services worsen.

At first glance, self-driving cars have the potential to reduce congestion rather than increase it. After all, Uber's popular Pool service allows up to four solo passengers to share a ride. If those people take Pool instead of driving separate cars or taking separate taxis, Pool reduces congestion. But if they take Pool instead of mass transit, then they are making congestion worse. What's more, once taxi services are self-driving, they'll be cheap enough to compete with mass transit on price, not just on convenience. If fewer people opt to take mass transit, transit services will have be cut to save money, making them even less convenient and encouraging more people to switch away. A so-called "death spiral" could result, leading to horrendous congestion and terrible public transport options.

What can be done? Congestion hurts everybody who needs to travel and mass transit is the only viable counterweight to it. The best solution, then, is to charge people for the "congestion pollution" they cause and funnel that money into mass transit to make it a more attractive alternative. Congestion charges would be raised—and mass transit made cheaper—until the congestion problem were resolved. Cheaper mass transit would also benefit poorer people and families and help connect them with economic opportunities.

Although a lot of people would  dislike the idea of congestion charging initially, London shows that this could be temporary: The charges in that city made driving there so much more pleasant—and saved locals and business owners so much time and money—that the congestion charging system is now widely popular. Boston's narrow, London-like streets and ongoing congestion issues make it a perfect candidate for a similar system. We can have our self-driving cars, low congestion, and good mass transit, we just need to get a little creative about how to balance the three. Congestion charges are one tried and tested way. Boston, no stranger to innovation, should be at the vanguard of this change!


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