There are three revolutions in urban transportation coming down the road

Lock up the streets and houses
Because there's something in the air
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here.
And you know that it's right
We have got to get it together
We have got to get it together now

-Thunderclap Newman

Self driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs) have been a preoccupation on TreeHugger for some years now, as we try and look at what effect they might have on our cities and the way we all live. It is all over the map; will they be shared, meaning there will be far fewer cars and greener cities with parks instead of parking lots? Or will they lead to endless sprawl as they take the pain out of commuting? Are they revolutionary or are they just more of the same old? Are we going to get it together?

Now a new study from the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) takes a stab at the different scenarios in their new report, Three revolutions in urban transportation.

The three revolutions happening all at once are the move to electric vehicles, automation, and sharing.

Together, the positive and negative aspects of each revolution will interact in many complex and difficult- to-predict ways. This report may be the first to attempt to quantify how these major changes could evolve and interact on a global and regional basis out to 2050. It considers possible end states, as well as transitional pathways and policies needed to get there.


It should be noted that most people writing about the subject have always thought that the three revolutions were really one revolution- from our first article on the subject we have assumed that AVs would likely be electric and shared. This report says that it is not so simple; it projects three scenarios:

Business as usual (BAU): with everybody driving around in their own internal combustion powered car or pickup truck.

2 Revolutions (2R) Scenario: where private cars still dominate, but are powered by electricity and are eventually automated.

3 Revolutions Scenario (3R):

This scenario includes widespread vehicle electrification and automation, and adds a major shift in mobility patterns by maximizing the use of shared vehicle trips. This scenario includes all three revolutions, and is a strongly multi-modal scenario, with increased availability of vehicles for shared trips, increased public transport availability and performance (including on-demand small bus services, larger buses and rail), and significant improvements in walking and cycling infrastructure and therefore in travel by these modes.

becker automotive© Your typical AV (actually a Becker conversion)

The 2R scenario is actually pretty scary, where privately owned AVs get larger to act as rolling living rooms, perhaps complete with home theatre systems and mobile offices. “And with the increased comfort and elimination of driving, the time cost of driving in AVs will be significantly lower, since people won’t mind being in their vehicles for longer periods of time when they do not have to drive them, and can conduct other activities.”

People will also use them more:

In all regions of the world, we assume a 10-15% increase in driving per capita (and per vehicle) in personal AVs relative to BAU. This could also include increases in zero-occupant vehicle travel, as people assign vehicles to conduct tasks such as retrieving family members or even packages. We assume another 5% increase in vehicle travel from this in our scenarios, resulting in an overall 15-20% increase in vehicle travel, though we acknowledge the effect could be more significant.

So we really have to start thinking about going straight to 3R, where the vehicles are shared.

Of the three revolutions, widespread shared mobility may be the most challenging to achieve and most dependent on strongly supportive policies. The potential for getting large numbers of people to share rides is highly uncertain, especially as travel costs drop from the other two revolutions. Strong financial incentives will likely be needed to encourage trip sharing and use of public transport in the face of otherwise cheap point- to-point services in single-occupant services.

characteristics© ITDP/ UCDavis

But the 3R solution offers the greatest opportunities for eliminating congestion, cleaning up our cities and reducing our carbon footprint. It is also part of a larger picture of alternate transportation choices. “Overall, this analysis suggests that a combination of electrification, automation, and multimodal shared vehicle trips would bring by far the greatest societal benefits for every country in this study.”

ViennaLloyd Alter/ Pedestrian street in Vienna with subway under/CC BY 2.0

There is, of course, another revolutionary option, which is None of the Above. (NOTA). This is what one experiences in cities like Vienna, where they have fabulous trams, good bike infrastructure and they drill subways out to new developments so that nobody has to drive at all if they don’t want to. Strong public incentives, investment in transit, cycling and walking infrastructure and good urban planning could obviate the need for cars of any variety. In fact, cars might just lose in an honest fight with bikes. Analyst Horace Dediu predicts that “Bikes have a tremendous disruptive advantage over cars. Bikes will eat cars”. According to CNN,

Dediu argues that electric, connected bikes will arrive en masse before autonomous, electric cars. Riders will barely have to pedal as they whiz down streets once congested with cars.

He also thinks that there is in fact, more pent-up demand for bikes and good bike infrastructure than there is for AVs.

"I can talk until I'm blue in the face about [autonomous vehicles] and I don't get a lot of response," Dediu said. "Whenever I open my mouth about electric bicycles, the enthusiasm I get back is literally deafening."

There will likely always be cars, whether AVs or human-driven. But surely, before we go to rebuilding our cities around AVs or tunnels or flying cars, we should look at what works now and emulate it instead of literally reinventing the wheel.

Tags: Cities | Self-driving car


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