T. Donna Chen is a faculty affiliate at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Link Lab and Center for Transportation Studies.
In October, Ford announced that it will begin testing self-driving vehicles on D.C. streets, offering urban planners, policymakers and residents a window into how mobility-on-demand autonomous vehicles can redefine transportation.
On the one hand, this technology can bridge gaps in access to motorized transportation, offering a new affordable mode of transportation for all of D.C.’s residents and providing an opportunity to rethink how our city delivers goods and services. These autonomous vehicles could represent a sustainable piece of a robust, multimodal transportation network that includes Metro, Capital Bikeshare, ride-hailing services, and dockless bicycles and scooters.
Yet, autonomous cars will compete for room on roadways that are increasingly affected by existing ride-hailing services. Ride-hailing services have more than quadrupled in three years in the District. They draw riders from more sustainable modes of transportation, such as Metro or Capital Bikeshare. With driverless cars, we could see an even greater increase in congestion on the District’s streets. And we could observe an uptick in zero-occupant miles, times when autonomous cars are not transporting any passengers and are not parked.
Rather than try to find a way to fit Ford’s fleet into D.C.’s already crowded roadways, policymakers should consider its arrival as an opportunity to rethink the multimodal transportation system — and the role of ride-hailing/mobility-on-demand services in particular — in a way that decreases congestion, increases efficiency and expands access. The Un iversity of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science piloted various simulations on how ride-hailing services can play a sustainable part in this system.
The key lies in the data. Right now, service providers do not share data, seeking to maintain a competitive edge. This perverse incentive prompts operators to accumulate more rides at the expense of system efficiency or need. Ford can show by example, coordinating a data-sharing plan with transportation planners and policymakers as they map and service trips in the District. Doing so would highlight the benefits of sharing knowledge about occupants’ ridership patterns or the extent to which zero-occupant miles affect street congestion.
Imagine if on-demand mobility and public transit could leverage shared information to coordinate services, ensuring supply matches demand in the most sustainable manner. After all, our goal is to deliver people, not cars, to their destinations.
Consider a city that prioritizes the effort to connect riders to public transit in an affordable and efficient manner and can ensure that reliable, door-to-door transportation service is available when that is not possible. By aligning fleet sizes and service coverage to the expected numbers of riders and their needs in any given ward, the District can lay out a sustainable vision for transportation.
As a part of this vision, we should leverage Ford’s unique focus on equity for its self-driving fleet. By compiling the above data, planners and service providers can work together to determine if such a service increases equitable access to transportation throughout the city. We know that Metro, Bikeshare and ride-hailing services operate in all eight wards — but we cannot say if they meet travelers’ needs at the same level and frequency in each jurisdiction.
Once we can collect robust information on wait times or average number of trips served per capita by zone, we can determine if riders in Ward 8 and Ward 3 alike have equal, affordable access to travel. We can remove significant barriers to economic success — and provide a road map for how on-demand mobility services promote equity, increase systemwide efficiency and reduce emissions.
To follow this road map, though, governments must rethink how they finance transportation, shifting from outdated flat-rate gas taxes and local-option taxes that do not reflect actual transportation use to an occupancy-based, vehicle-miles-traveled fee. With the potential for more transparent ridership and route data, the District could follow the lead of assorted states and coalitions by charging service operators and vehicle owners based on the relative effect they have on the city’s streets. A different type of incentive emerges, in which autonomous vehicle owners and service operators avoid zero-occupant miles to reduce costs. And the District could stand to benefit from a substantial rise in revenue over time.
Ford’s arrival is more than another technology shift in transportation. It can serve as a catalyst for a more sustainable, properly funded transportation network in which operators at all levels coordinate to provide accessible and efficient transportation services throughout the District.
In a multimodal city, let’s explore the multiplicity of ways that autonomous vehicles can not only coexist with but also enhance our other modes of transportation.