The Economist offers an interesting look at traffic congestion and solutions in the North American context. While on this continent traffic congestion brings hundreds of billions of dollars of economic losses, there are challenges getting that money to fix things like existing transit systems. Somehow the driverless “deus ex machina”, letting the shiny new autonomous vehicle concept take up the commuting conversation puts governmental decisions about finding money to fix transit in temporary abeyance.
Even The Economist cites the fact that you just can’t build more highways to get out of traffic congestion, and cite the paper by Duranton and Turner (2011). Building more roads “attracts more residents, leads to more driving by existing residents and boosts transport-intensive economic activity, until roads are once again crammed.”
So why do we think autonomous vehicles are so great? Driverless technology will mean fewer crashes and can drive closer together, temporarily boosting road capacity. “But reductions in traffic will make living in currently congested areas more attractive and hence more populous. Miles travelled per person might also rise, since self-driving technology frees passengers to use travel time for work or sleep. And just as new highways prompt a rise in transport-intensive business, driverless vehicles could generate lots of new road-using activity. Where now a worker might pop into the coffee shop before going to work, for example, a latte might soon be delivered in a driverless vehicle. The technology of driverless cars may make us safer and more productive, but not necessarily less traffic-bound.”
And this is where road pricing comes in. If “jams occur because a scarce resource, the road, is underpriced, so more people drive than it can accommodate. But tolls could favour use of the roadway by those who value it most. Some places already use such charges—London and Singapore are examples—but they are rarely popular. Some drivers balk at paying for what they once got for nothing, and others are uneasy about the tracking of private vehicles that efficient pricing requires. People seem not to object to paying by the mile when they are being driven—by taxis and services like Uber and Lyft—and the driverless programmes now being tested by Waymo and GM follow this model. If a driverless world is one in which people generally buy rides rather than cars, then not only might fewer unnecessary journeys be made, but also political resistance to road-pricing could ease, and congestion with it.
While this future would mean that fast transportation access is available to user payers, mass-transit and ride-hailing may be just as efficient and cheaper. And the expected congestion in the autonomous vehicle world will mean that underground transit~and faster ways to move a mass of people quickly and efficiently~will still be in fashion. As the Economist surmises ” should congestion prove ineradicable in a driverless world, people will continue to hope for technological solutions, like the long-promised flying cars. While we wait for that—and the clotted skyways that would soon follow—governments would be wise to keep their underground systems in good working order.”