Will Autonomous Cars Cure Overcrowding on Our Streets?

Supporters of autonomous cars talk about how they will virtually eliminate vehicular overcrowding in our cities. The argument seems to be that because the flow of vehicles will be smoother there will be fewer (if any) traffic jams. Ergo no congestion! (I know I'm generalizing and overstating their position.) Of course I disagree.

Let's take San Francisco, a city of just 49 square miles (more or less) with a vehicle population of about 500,000. About 265,000 workers commute into SF every work day. About 37% of these, or 98,000, drive solo. Approximately 18,000 carpool, just over 82,000 use public transportation, and 9,000 ride bikes. So on average 116,000 extra vehicles enter SF every work day. Right now parking is at a premium especially downtown.

I would expect the number of vehicles would increase if autonomous vehicle usage increases. I suggest that a number of those who carpool do so not because they like riding with others but because they don't like driving, especially driving in commute traffic.

There will still be a need for parking lots unless autonomous vehicles are just going to drive around in circles while their riders work. Parking lots are not best use for the land.

In the SF Bay area people are commuting longer distances than in previous times. These are super commuters. People in my town, Tracy, CA, commute to SF and San Jose, distances of 65-80 miles each way. I've lived here almost four years and the commute is worse (longer in time) than it was when I moved here. New homes are going up at an amazing pace. It should be clear that more and more vehicles are going to be added to the commute.

So please explain just how autonomous vehicles are going to solve the problem. A vehicle is a vehicle regardless of whether it is driven by a human or a computer. Yes the flow may - MAY - be smoother but all those vehicles are going to end up in the same place, and in the same clogged city streets.

The only logical answer I see is to reduce the number of vehicles entering city centers. Cities could legislate fewer vehicles by taxing those that do enter. Or people could drive less (see this article on LA https://la.curbed.com/2019/4/29/18522815/los-angeles-green-new-deal-garcetti-cars ). But the simplest way to get people out of their vehicles is to offer them an user-friendly, economical alternative.

I lived for years in a major metropolitan city - Toronto, Ontario. Toronto had, and I assume still has, an excellent public transportation system especially in the core area. There are street cars, buses, and subways. When I worked in downtown Toronto I usually used public transit because it was at least as quick as my personal car, and it was much, much cheaper when the cost of parking was added in.

Autonomous cars may have a place. They appear to be safer (we'll know for sure once they are in wider use) and on the open highway they should offer a quicker, more relaxed trip. But unless they are all zero emission vehicles they will still pollute.

So let's put the argument that the autonomous car is the savior of our cities to rest. Maybe the tech industries need to put their might behind solving mass transit instead.


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