AVs in the Pacific Northwest: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in a Time of Automation

AVs in the Pacific Northwest: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in a Time of Automation

The University of Oregon conducted research for the cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver to understand how the deployment of autonomous vehicles may impact greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Based on the range of possible outcomes, the cities hope to better understand the policies and programmatic choices available to mitigate negative impacts of AVs and ensure that they can accomplish the goals stated in their climate action, land use, and transportation plans. By working together, each city hopes to learn from each other—as well as cities from across North America—to achieve their climate-related goals.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector accounts for the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions compared to all other sectors (28% in 2016). In Canada, the transportation sector, along with the oil and gas sector, accounts for nearly 50% of total GHG emissions. The Cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver have adopted ambitious climate goals that involve a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Given that the transportation sector accounts for a significant percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions, transportation is a critical focus area for the three cities. However, the Cities’ ability to reach their climate goals may be threatened by the deployment of autonomous vehicles and other emerging technologies. Preliminary research suggests that AVs will operate much like TNCs do today, and worryingly, TNCs appear to be contributing to increases in vehicle distance traveled and congestion, as well as decreases in transit ridership and other non-vehicular modes. In addition, the rise of e-commerce and app-based ordering has contributed to an increase in urban freight and local delivery trips. These trends could cause detrimental environmental impacts, as well as detrimental impacts on equity if current disparities are exacerbated rather than mitigated. What is clear is that the Cities will need to enact equity-informed programs and policies that help to mitigate these impacts in order to achieve greenhouse gas emission goals. While there may be challenges, there are also many opportunities to make positive changes, though that will require a culture of flexibility, innovation, and transparency.

Key findings

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