Our streets may be clogged with self-driving cars

© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

We keep saying how we won’t need so many cars when the autonomous vehicles hit the road, and often show this lovely rendering of London with a few cars mixed in with the pedestrians.

But in fact the roads might still be crowded, because the VMT, or vehicle miles traveled, will not necessarily go down; there will just be fewer cars on the road longer. Dr. Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas, thinks that in fact they may add to congestion, telling a South by Southwest crowd: “I don’t think these cars are going to help us with congestion. I think they’re going to make it worse.”

suburbia© Matthew Spremulli via MIT News

The 'burbs are back, but they will be different this time.
Kockelman believes AVs will save thousands of lives and increase dramatically increase productivity, saving billions or even trillions of dollars. But it won’t do much for congestion for a number of reasons, listed by Paul Mackie in Mobility Lab:

  • Longer travel distances, including people more likely to take induced driverless trips to destinations they currently wouldn’t drive to due to stress or other factors
  • More driving trips by people who are presently unlicensed or have barriers to driving
  • Less air travel by passengers
  • Less rail travel by freightPossibly larger, less-efficient vehicles for longer trips, and
  • More sprawling land use

“We’re going to see a lot more travel, but hopefully we’ll travel together, so that will avoid congestion,” she said. Kockelman added that improved technology should make tolling more efficient and that better public transportation and true ridesharing (as opposed to Uber- and Lyft-like ride-hailing) will be keys along the autonomous path.

broadacre cityFrank Lloyd Wright: Broadacre City/Public Domain

Good luck with that. It is more likely that we will see the opposite; as Alison Arrieff noted in the New York Times: "If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive." It is more likely that we are back to Broadacre City, with everyone in their own car, going in their own direction.

Our streets may be clogged with self-driving cars
There will be fewer of them, but they will all be moving all the time, and going farther.

Related Content on Treehugger.com