Autonomous cars are generating incredible hype, but whether they become a curse or blessing depends on how they are used. Car manufacturers are steering automatic vehicles (AVs) toward a curse for our crowded cities and our climate targets. Making empty cars drive around – to run errands or just to avoid expensive parking – could clog already crowded roads with even more vehicles.
An autonomous bus rapid transit system, however, could help solve urban traffic woes, the decarbonization challenge, and the fight over expensive space in our cities. This concept combines the already successful bus rapid transit (BRT) model with the efficiency and flexibility of autonomous driving technology. In a world where more than two-thirds of the population is projected to live in cities in 2050, an efficient and low-cost urban traffic system ensuring the lowest possible emission rates becomes crucial.
Autonomous driving miles add up fast.
If everyone simply swapped their current vehicles for AVs, urban sprawl and traffic chaos would escalate. In one day the average American driver – let’s call him Tony, takes 2.2 trips – driving for 51 minutes and covering 31.5 miles. How would Tony’s behavior change with a self-driving car? In a hypothetical scenario, Tony works downtown where it is expensive to park. So, his self-driving car just parks farther away and picks him up again later. A Seattle-focused study suggests this could increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by an average of six miles, meaning Tony’s estimated VMT would increase 20%
Statistically, middle class U.S. households are likely to own two cars. Thus, in this example, Tony’s wife – let’s call her Anna– would also drive an AV to work. When Tony and Anna are at work, the cars are called by their kids, who don’t want to pay for the bus and who want to make at least one trip each.
A 2016 study suggests demand from people who would otherwise not drive could increase by up to 10% per person (the study focuses more on senior citizens, but since this scenario otherwise ignores induced demand induced demand of people older than 62, it accounts for induced demand from children). So in this example with two kids we estimate a 20% increase.
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