Could autonomous vehicles cause an economic disaster?

In the near future, it’s likely that Uber and Lyft become the main means of transportation around a city — but there won’t be anyone in the driver’s seat. In the big picture, that translates to 5 million transportation workers who are no longer employed.

That’s some of what was discussed at Urbanism Next, a workshop sponsored by UO Portland and the Sustainable Cities Initiative, at the White Stag Building on April 24. More than 60 urban designers, architects, city planners, transportation engineers and developers gathered to focus on emerging technologies such as self-driving cars, e-commerce and the effects these will have on the way cities work and grow.

The secondary effects new types of transit will have on retail, city landscape, city revenue and the future of transit are what needs to be addressed by city planners and policy makers now, said Nico Larco, associate professor of architecture in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts and co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative. Urban sprawl, for example, may easily become an even larger issue than it already is.

“This has the potential to be quite painful,” Larco said. “Study after study shows that if you make transportation easier, people travel more and the city sprawls out even further.”

That’s just one of a multitude of issues that will affect cities once the technology becomes commonplace. Jeff Tumlin, the Sustainable Cities Initiative expert in residence and the workshop’s keynote speaker, said companies like Ford and Google predict that may happen anywhere from five to 30 years from now.

Most cities are unprepared for the results of a new type of transit, he said. Even with bus ridership already diminishing due to the increased use of transportation network companies like Lyft and Uber, the conversations between government and cities aren’t happening.

“Bus ridership in big cities is collapsing, car ownership is collapsing, what are governments doing to get ahead of this problem?” he asked. “A little but not much. The federal regulators are not thinking systemically at all. They are fixated on the technology itself.”

 The more interesting approach, he said, is what the National Association of City Transportation Officials have been putting forward.

“They are trying to bring together all of the departments of transportation of the larger cities in the United States to figure out what are we going to do here,” he said.

Autonomous vehicles could unleash upon cities an unprecedented level of induced demand, Tumlin said. And although it is difficult to estimate, “it would be very easy to imagine quadrupling or quintupling of traffic demand in cities if we don’t regulate autonomous vehicles.”

Professionals from around the country gave 10-minute presentations on subjects from reusing parking garages if the use for them is eliminated, the future of street design, the rise of on-demand microtransit (a carpooling version of Lyft or Uber), the shifting nature of retail, the effects of increased sprawl and the effect of autonomous vehicles on physical health.

“We need 10,000 steps every day for our bodily systems to function properly,” Tumlin said. “And if we design our cities so that you can take your autonomous vehicle to the gym to walk on the treadmill in order to get your 10,000 steps in, we are not designing cities for public health. And indeed, the movie ‘WALL-E’ very accurately predicts the public health outcome of completely unfettered, unregulated autonomous vehicles.”

The economic results of autonomous transit will be disastrous if it is not addressed quickly, Larco said, noting that 4 to 5 million transit workers — truck drivers, public transit operators, driving service workers — will become unemployed once their jobs are assumed by autonomous vehicles. The loss of fuel tax revenue, sharp drops in brick-and-mortar retail shopping and loss of property tax revenue should physical stores close are also concerns.

“There is great agreement that these issues span well beyond transportation and we need to stop focusing on autonomous vehicles as a new and shiny technology and more on the secondary effects it will have on city form, design and development,” Larco said. “If we are not prepared, it will have deep and likely detrimental, if not catastrophic, economic effects.”

If planning begins immediately, Tumlin added, there wouldn’t need to be one single layoff; the existing labor force could be transferred over gradually to the emerging transportation system.

To date, Larco said, the only robust report he has seen that is looking at the economic effects of autonomous vehicles is a financial report from Morgan Stanley to their clients asking the question if investing in municipal bonds is still a good idea.

“And the answer to that is ‘no,’” Tumlin said.

But the news is not all dire, he said. The number of deaths in traffic accidents in the United States each year — about 30,000 — would decrease dramatically with autonomous vehicles. However, the other issues remain looming.  

“The general consensus that if we are not prepared for this, effects will be largely negative and many areas of the city will simply wither,” Larco said. “But there are opportunities to avoid that if we are prepared.”

—By Laurie Notaro, UO Communications