My View: Self-driving cars will worsen congestion
How many of you have been stuck in traffic and late for work, an event, or a meeting? If you have, you know that Portland has a congestion problem.
Our population is expected to increase by 40 percent (260,000) in the next 18 years. Think of the increase as a potential 40 percent increase in traffic. What is the solution?
Automobile manufacturers would have us believe that self-driving cars, called autonomous vehicles (AV), will bring multiple benefits. They suggest that we will no longer need a car, so we can be relieved of costly automobile ownership expenses. Nor will we need a driveway or a garage, and so we can have bigger lawns.
When you need a car, you can just call up an app and within minutes a car will appear at your front door. If you are going to your place of employment you can read or daydream along the way. When you arrive, you need not worry about locating or paying for a parking space. Just get out and the car will disappear down the road. Best of all, we can avoid the collisions that kill. These are just a few of the possibilities that are touted.
However, we need to look more closely at the consequences. Recently the national transportation engineering firm Fehr & Peers published a paper describing how AVs might change travel outcomes. Test results showed that regional vehicle miles traveled would increase from 12 to 68 percent. Transit trips would decline between 26 to 47 percent for buses and between 13 to 40 percent for rail. So with AVs we can expect more cars on the road and a serious erosion of transit service.
What about Uber and Lyft ride-hailing? New York already has been negatively impacted by ride-hailing. Congestion has increased and transit ridership and revenues have fallen as travelers substitute ride-hailing services. The consensus is that ride-hailing services contribute to growth in vehicle-miles traveled and shift trips away from more sustainable modes such as public transit, biking and walking.
Apparently, AVs and ride-hailing will create more congestion and more carbon emissions — not good news for Portland.
What about electric cars? The potential benefits in terms of reduced carbon emissions are substantial.
Depending on how electricity is produced in a region, plug-ins are from 30 to 80 percent lower in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Gina Coplon-Newfield, the director of the Sierra Club's Electric Vehicle initiative.
The emission reductions are most significant in the Pacific Northwest, where a large percentage of power is generated by renewables (hydro and wind) and least significant in the Midwest where power is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Electric cars, then, are a positive development in efforts to reduce carbon emissions. But experts predict that an all-electric car future is still years away. And, of course, electric cars do nothing to reduce congestion.
At a time when we need to be taking steps to reduce auto travel and global carbon emissions, new ride-hailing and self-driving car technologies will be pushing our country in the wrong direction. Portland needs to recognize the problem and adopt regulations that prevent new technologies from creating more congestion.