How to Reduce City Traffic: Self-Driving Vehicles or Car-Free Cities?

Debating two possible solutions to packed urban roadways

30 March 2016

Commuters and truckers in the United States sat in traffic for 6.9 billion hours collectively in 2014, with each driver losing about 42 hours on average to delays, according to the annual Urban Mobility Scorecard released by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and Inrix, a traffic-data collection company. The staggering delays are due to more drivers than ever hitting the roads, as well as an increase in accidents, research suggests. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that 94 percent of crashes last year were caused by human error.

To alleviate the delays, some analysts are promoting self-driving cars, which would substantially reduce the number of accidents. Meanwhile, a few cities are looking to do away with cars altogether. A column last month in The Washington Post suggests municipalities should ban cars entirely and instead upgrade their public transit systems with self-driving trains and buses.

AI BEHIND THE WHEEL

Google self-driving cars’ artificial intelligence systems have a better driving record than most people—only one of the company’s 23 autonomous cars has been at fault in an accident in the past six years. And General Motors, Toyota, and other automakers are planning to develop their own autonomous vehicles.

Before you become the proud owner of a self-driving car, you might be asking one for a ride. Although Google’s driverless vehicles are still a few years from hitting the market, the company is already developing a ride-for-hire service, putting it in competition with Uber, the ride-sharing service, which reportedly is looking to add self-driving cars to its fleet. Robot Taxi of Tokyo started testing autonomous cabs in February, according to The Japan Times. It offers rides to people in the Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of Tokyo. The service is expected to reduce the number of parking spots needed in the city.

MIT is working on a different kind of automated technology that could speed up daily commutes. Its smart-intersection system, still in development, aims to eliminate the need for stoplights. The system could potentially work with human-controlled cars, too, in addition to self-driving ones. Sensors inside each vehicle would communicate with a device at each intersection. That device would determine whether the car is continuing straight or turning and then control the car’s movement through the intersection, grouping the car with others heading in the same direction. The device also would prevent cars from entering the intersection when it’s time to let the next group pass.

PEDESTRIAN PARADISE

Several cities are opting to go car-free, at least in certain neighborhoods. Proponents of car-free cities argue that banning vehicular traffic in densely populated areas can reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality while making the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Banning cars also would force cities to upgrade their public transit systems, as more people rely on trains and buses to get where they need to go.

In October, Oslo became the first European city to announce plans to permanently prohibit vehicular traffic in its downtown area. The ban is to go into effect by 2019.

Inspired by a similar initiative in Paris, Ydanis Rodríguez, chair of the New York City Council transportation committee, is urging parts of the metropolis to go car-free on 22 April. It’s part of the city’s plan to celebrate Earth Day. Singapore and Chandirgarh, India, have designated car-free days.

The author of that Washington Post column, J.H. Crawford, says that rather than investing time and money to build and fix roads and clear space for parking lots, cities should serve their “fundamental” purpose: “to bring many people together in a space where social, cultural, and economic synergies could develop.” Crawford points out that in Europe, car-free portions of cities generate the most pedestrian traffic. As a result, he says, stores and restaurants thrive there.

So how would people get around? Although electric and self-driving cars might be safer and less damaging to the environment, Crawford says, they require too much space and use too much energy. “Good public transport coupled with fast, safe, pleasant walking and bicycling can easily meet the need for movement,” he writes. Transit systems can be automated, planning consultant Jarrett Walker wrote in another Washington Post opinion piece, citing Vancouver’s driverless trains and autonomous bus systems under development in China and Europe.

Do you think cities could rely on autonomous taxis or do away with cars altogether? What other technologies could ease traffic problems? Sound off in the comments section.

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