That’s one of the questions that Yonah Freemark, Anne Hudson, and Jinhua Zhao, researchers from MIT, set out to answer in a new study, the findings of which were recently published in the Journal of the American Planning Association. In order to answer that question, they reviewed plans from the 25 largest metropolitan areas and conducted a survey of planning and transportation officials from 120 cities with populations of 100k or more.
And what did they find? Are cities preparing for AVs? Largely, no. They write, “Minimal planning for AVs has been undertaken thus far at the municipal level.” This is in spite of the fact that majority of survey respondents believe that AVs will be commercially available within 10 years and that it could be as soon as 5 years. Here are a few more stats from their survey: Over 40% of respondents believe that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will increase with the introduction of AVs, at least a bit or a lot, compared with just 22% who think it will decrease. Approximately 26% of respondents think that congestion will increase, but 38% think it will actually decrease. More than 27% responded that they think walking and biking will increase, while only 14% think it will decrease…
Their findings are interesting on many levels. As Laura Bliss points out in CityLab, this runs counter to the much of the published research about the impacts that transportation network services (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft—often considered a proxy for AVs—are having on cities. Granted, there are a lot factors at play—TNCs may be contributing to congestion but it’s not like congestion didn’t exist before. And TNCs are certainly not the sole reason that many cities are experiencing decreases in transit ridership and other mode shifts. However, it’s interesting to try and imagine how AVs could help ease congestion or increase walk and bike trips without any policy interventions or regulations. At the end of the day, AVs are just vehicles and if they’re used in much the same way today—with most people riding alone—why would the outcomes be all that different?
We are not alone in this thinking, as the researchers suggest: “It is worth noting, in particular, the relatively large number of officials who worry about AVs increasing VMT and sprawl while reducing transit ridership and employment. If those fears come to fruition, many cities will be acting in direction opposition to their stated policy goals.” These are current policy goals in plans that have already been adopted. They go on to conclude, “Despite the nebulousness surrounding AVs, this finding indicates a need for creating policies specifically targeted at preventing these deleterious effects.”
The researchers make the case that the time to act is now, and we agree. Planning for AVs is not just about incorporating them into future plans, but in “connecting current problems with plans for AVs…” These problems already exist—let’s work on them on addressing them proactively now and—bonus—preparing for AVs at the same time.