Why cities aren’t preparing for autonomous vehicles

by Rayla Bellis

A study evaluating municipal planning for autonomous vehicles found that an overwhelming majority of cities have done little to prepare for their arrival. At the same time, many of those cities have concerns about the negative impacts AVs could bring along with the substantial benefits, from increased vehicle miles traveled and congestion to reduced transit ridership and increased sprawl.

The study authors, urban planning scholars from MIT, assessed AV preparedness by surveying transportation and planning officials in 120 cities. They also reviewed plans for the 25 largest cities. Only 20 percent of the cities surveyed agreed that they are “well prepared for AVs,” and less than 5 percent agreed that their city has a “clear plan for AVs” or “clear policy for incorporating AVs on streets.”

One of the biggest reasons behind this lack of preparation, according to the survey findings, is that many cities are waiting on state regulations. Most respondents agreed that self-driving technology would require new regulations to channel the benefits and mitigate potential negative outcomes, but they felt local regulations would have little impact because they will be preempted by higher levels of government. One survey respondent noted, “I don’t believe that local governments will have much leverage in regulating AVs” while another stated, “we anticipate state laws that will explicitly prohibit our ability to regulate these services.” Other cities pointed to a lack of resources to do adequate planning.

Los Angeles is a notable exception. The city has developed an “Urban Mobility in a Digital Age” plan with ideas about dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles, fleets of autonomous buses and shuttles, and development of vehicle data-sharing agreements so that the city can manage traffic flow.

While widespread AV deployment could still be years off, now is the time to put needed local policies in place. The study authors suggest peer-to-peer sharing so that the cities that do have the resources to plan for AVs can help those that don’t mitigate the potential harmful impacts.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.