Autonomous vehicles demand streetscape changes in NYC: RPA

Autonomous vehicles could have a place even in a subway city.

The emerging technology of driverless cars could complement New York’s transportation network of subways, buses and car services, according to a new report from the Regional Plan Association — that is if officials begin addressing the city’s traffic nightmare.

“It’s very clear for us in the city. We don’t see it as a supplement for public transit in very dense areas with finite street space like New York City,” said Rich Barone, vice president for transportation at the RPA. “However, we do see an opportunity to complement those services, especially on low-demand routes that don’t work for fixed transit,” meaning buses.

The association’s report published Monday, titled “New Mobility: Autonomous Vehicles and the Region,” outlines how autonomous vehicles can “improve the reach, utility, and lower the cost of public transportation.”

There are four key benefits to the new technology, according to the RPA: Improved street safety; more “free” time spent commuting; improved mobility for the elderly and unlicensed; and cheaper consumer goods. The new technology will create a world of labor issues at agencies like the MTA and at private companies like Uber — but it is coming regardless, the RPA argues.

Between 70 and 90 percent of all vehicles could be autonomous by 2045, according to RPA predictions, including for-hire vehicles, trucks and local buses. And government officials must begin developing proper policy to prepare for the shift, Barone said.

“The big takeaway is we found there’s clearly going to be challenges in dense cities like New York,” said Barone. “The delicate balance here is between not being heavy handed and stifling creativity with the technology and not completely sticking our heads in the sand.”

That means the region must consider new ways to manage traffic, according to the report, which offers a series of recommendations. For instance, New York should follow the lead of European cities in giving a higher priority to buses, pedestrian bicyclists and freight traffic, according to the report. That means the city should sharpen its focus on building more dedicated bus and bike lanes, while reserving less space for cars — automated or manually operated — which take up a good deal of space to move relatively few people.

It should also implement higher tolls or fees tied to miles traveled in order to reduce congestion. That could work alongside a cap on the number of autonomous vehicles, which would be implemented during certain times of the day or in busy areas of the city. Curb space would have to be reallocated to better serve autonomous vehicles that are picking up or dropping off passengers or delivering goods.

Barone warned there are still “a lot of unknowns” and that no one has “all the answers.” He likened the development of autonomous vehicles to the rapid and unpredictable growth of smartphone technology a decade ago.

Other experts believe it’s far too soon to predict how autonomous vehicle technology will develop and ultimately be put to practice.

“It’s total surmise,” said Jon Orcutt, a spokesman at the nonprofit TransitCenter. “The answer about true robot cars is, no one knows. The silver view of this technology is it could be decades away from being ready for the primetime in places like Manhattan, and nobody has a clue about market penetration and who will adopt this first.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo welcomed companies interested in testing autonomous vehicles to do so upstate.

“Self-driving vehicles are the future and New York is committed to being at the forefront of cutting-edge technology,” said a spokesman for the governor. “This administration is proud to be partnering with industry leaders to support testing and innovation that can bring real benefits to our roads and public transit.”