Circle headshot of the researchers.Autonomous vehicles are coming, and cities and states should start preparing now for the challenges and opportunities this seismic shift in transportation will potentially create. To that end, the Autonomous Vehicles Policy Initiative released a report last month detailing five policy actions that cities can take now to be ready for a future where self-driving vehicles are the norm. Lecturer in Public Policy Mark Fagan, who leads the initiative out of Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, coauthored the policy brief with Daniel Comeaux MPP 2020, now at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Benjamin Gillies MPP 2017, a Kennedy School alumnus who focuses on urban and transportation policy in Canada.

For the last three years, the Autonomous Vehicles Policy Initiative has probed the ways in which state and local policymakers will have to grapple with a future where self-driving vehicles are used increasingly for ridesharing, shuttles, delivery services, and more. Fagan led facilitated policy “scrums” with public, private, nonprofit, and academic stakeholders in Boston, Toronto, Kansas City, Rhode Island, Buenos Aires, and Detroit to help these communities identify key challenges and potential policy solutions related to autonomous vehicles (AVs). 

Traditional car manufacturers such as GM, Ford, and Nissan-Renault already have AVs on the road, and startups such as Waymo use them for ridesharing: Waymo has hundreds of autonomous vehicles in operation now and plans to have about 20,000 more in a few years. From Boston to Seattle, American cities are wrestling with different ways to pilot self-driving experiments and tackle the issues of implementation and regulation.

As Fagan and his coauthors write, “city and state officials are both excited and nervous about the advent of AVs.” The benefits to state and local governments, they say, could extend to improved mobility, reduced congestion, and better use of space. At the same time, challenges abound, including worries about the technology, decreased revenues for cities, job losses for drivers, concerns about the use of data and privacy, and more.

So, what are the five actions policymakers can take to prepare, according to Fagan and his coauthors?

1. Foster Mobility as a Service (MaaS)

Mobility as a service is a relatively new idea for consolidating trip planning and payment on one platform, even when the trip might require several different modes of transportation—such as taking a subway ride and then switching to a bike rental service for the last leg of the journey.

For MaaS to work, Fagan and his coauthors explain, transportation providers would have to share data specific to open policy questions and be willing to coordinate more. In addition, cities and states would have to be sure that MaaS would work in their context. “We recommend that policymakers consider their broader regional mobility goals when setting up, or enabling, any MaaS system,” the authors write.

2. Rethink curb design and street space allocation

“Several pressures—including traffic congestion, increased demand for curb use, and the proliferation of delivery vehicles and TNCs [Transportation Network Companies such as Lyft and Uber]—are making city planners rethink the use of the curb,” Fagan and his coauthors write.

The space between road and sidewalk—the curb—has typically been thought of as primarily for parking but increasingly is used by drivers making deliveries or Lyfts and Ubers picking up or dropping off passengers. To determine the best use of curb space in a scenario in which AVs will join this mix, policymakers first need to map the curbs, prioritize their use, pilot alternative uses of curb space, and can come up with a solid plan to use curbs and streets most effectively. 

“The impending arrival of AVs offers states and municipalities a chance to shape this industry with policies that will deliver public value.”

Mark Fagan, Daniel Comeaux, Benjamin Gillies

3. Manage and reduce congestion

Traffic is already a big problem in many cities. According to the authors, public leaders are in a better position to think through additional challenges related to congestion before autonomous vehicles hit the streets in large numbers, joining Lyfts and Ubers, micro-mobility such as scooters and bikes, pedestrians, and public transit. 

First, policymakers should understand existing traffic patterns and learn from programs in place. After defining guiding principles, they can develop a congestion pricing strategy and communications plan, focus on improving transit performance, and design a pilot that they can learn from and scale.

4. Establish data-sharing guidelines and agreements

Fagan and his coauthors write, “Data-sharing is a thorny issue because it goes to the heart of privacy and security issues around personal data.” The public is wary of how self-driving cars will use the data they capture—both about drivers and passengers and about people outside the vehicles who get picked up by their cameras.

To start dealing with these challenges, city and state leaders should first figure out what data needs to be shared and develop guidelines for sharing. They can start using these guidelines with existing mobility providers and then evaluate and refine them.

5. Reposition revenues

Many cities count on parking revenue to raise funds. However, ridesharing services are already cutting into parking demand and AVs will only add to this shift in many places. “We therefore believe it makes sense to move towards new revenue models today,” Fagan and his coauthors write, “rather than waiting for the arrival of AVs—as by then, cities will already be feeling the financial pinch of this new technology.”

For policymakers to seize this opportunity, they should first understand their revenues, identify existing curb demand, make sure street signs indicating curb use are clear, focus on de-incentivizing parking lots, and find areas to eliminate parking minimums associated with new construction. 

Read the full report, “Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming: Five Policy Actions Cities Can Take Now to Be Ready.

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