Will Driverless Cars Increase Congestion?

Awaiting the Driverless Car Revolution, with Tongue Slightly in Cheek

May 19, 2016

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a four-part series about the impact of driverless cars on design and planning. On Monday, Alan Mountjoy reported how BMW is planning for a disruptive future; on Tuesday, Donald Bellefeuille wrote about the health opportunities afforded by autonomous vehicles; on Wednesday, architects and planners from NBBJ shared some surprising impacts on a wide variety of topics. Thanks for reading!


Before we get to driverless cars, our newest hope for beating back urban auto congestion, we have to survive the Uber revolution. At the moment in Boston, for example, there are apparently more cars on the road than ever. Some of us may have left our cars at home for the convenience of Uber, while the growing number of Uber and Lyft drivers perusing the streets, along with remaining taxis, has worsened daily traffic.

The lesson being that, at least so far, advances in the technologies of personal mobility have tended to increase rather than alleviate urban congestion, just because more convenient personal mobility tends to increase the temptation to move about more often and to more places. So driverless cars no doubt (eventually) will diminish fender benders along with serious accidents; enable vehicles to move in closer proximity to each other, thus increasing flow; and lower the need for owning personal vehicles, given the ability to call one when needed , and then park it out of sight and mind. But they will not ultimately reduce congestion unless there is a corresponding reduction in the number of trips we may desire to take on a daily basis.

However, if we become accustomed to such conveniences to realize that we can get to more places more easily, safely and more often, then the expectation of a substantial reduction in vehicular miles may remain some time away. Perhaps Amazon’s fantasy of delivering to us all of its goods (and thus all we may ever need) via drones may indeed prove more of a limiter to personal travel.

Meanwhile, Tesla Motors, Terrafugia, a Slovakian company called AeroMobil and the founder of South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, are in a fierce race to introduce flying cars (unclear as yet whether piloted or not), with predictions of this being only a year-or-two away.

I’m personally holding out for the perfection of hydrogen-powered vehicles, driverless or not: at least that would finally take care of our little carbon problem.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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