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It’s a transformative time in transportation as new technologies become available.
People are hailing rides from Uber and Lyft services.
Autonomous vehicles are being tested.
And technology and pricing can be used to better manage traffic.
“We’re at essentially an inflection point where cities and communities are really more willing to rethink how we’ve done transportation in the past,” said Anne Brown, assistant professor of planning, public policy, and management at the University of Oregon.
Here’s a look at the future:
Better managing traffic
Decades of research has shown that communities cannot build their way out of congestion, Brown said.
Some commuters will opt to stay away from congested roads, using transit or an alternate route, or travel at a different time of day when traffic isn’t as heavy.
When a congested highway is widened, though, some of those commuters will switch back to the preferred route because it can handle more traffic, she said. The initial benefit quickly evaporates.
Going forward, transportation professionals see pricing as a way of better managing traffic and dealing with the move away from the gas tax, which has been the traditional source of roadway funding.
Tolling can help reduce congestion, raise revenues and invest in transit, Brown said.
One method is to charge a fee based congestion. For example, the cost might be $5 for drivers traveling between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., $3 between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and $1 earlier in the morning.
The goal is to encourage commuters to not travel at the most congested time to make it faster for everyone, Brown said.
Hot lanes are another method. Drivers can pay a toll to use the faster lane rather than free, general purpose lane.
“The hot lane can actually carry way more people per hour, even though sometimes it looks like they’re empty,” she said, adding that it’s because the vehicles are traveling at much higher speeds.
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Help for those who can’t afford tolls
Some people aren’t traveling by car because owning one is expensive. AAA estimates the average annual cost to own and operate a vehicle is more than $9,500.
Research has shown that people of all income levels pay tolls, Brown said.
Money generated from the tolls can be used to help subsidize the cost for those who might be negatively impacted, she said.
Southern California, for example, has a number of toll facilities, and the money is used to provide transit along the same corridor to give commuters an alternative.
The money also can be used to provide tax credits for households.
It’s just not money that commuters are paying. It’s time, too.
Maybe commuters use the general purpose lanes, but they’re running late. It might be worth it to them to pay the toll to arrive at work on time or to pick their child up from daycare to avoid a late fee.
More transit options in suburban and rural communities
In some cities, such as Philadelphia, buses, subways and taxis are the most efficient way to move people, she said.
In suburban and rural areas, transit becomes expensive to operate, and passengers can’t expect to catch a bus every 10 to 15 minutes.
Some rural and suburban communities are turning to the latest technology, contracting with Uber and Lyft to give passengers a ride.
But this option, too, comes with drawbacks.
While a transit fee is less expensive and provides riders with a better service, it could exclude people who don’t have bank accounts or smartphones to pay for it.
People who use wheelchairs need accessible services, too.
Transit agencies have a lot of pieces to think through, but “it’s really interesting and a potentially promising solution for lower density communities,” she said.
The future of autonomous vehicles
Self-driving vehicles are still being tested, and it’s a long way off until the country sees a full deployment, Brown said.
Technology needs to be put in place to support autonomous vehicles, and many cities haven’t planned for them yet.
“It’s hard to plan proactively when you’re not really sure exactly when it will come or exactly what it’ll look like,” Brown said.
They will be expensive because of all the technology they require, and it’s believed that the public will use them like a subscription-based service. It would be more like an Uber or Lyft service but without a driver.
The subscription might include a certain number of trips per month or unlimited rides, she said.
Autonomous vehicles would provide more mobility for a variety of people: youths, older adults, and people with disabilities.
Considerations will need to be taken into account, such as the price it will cost to use them and what options will be available for people who don’t have smart phones or bank accounts.
“So there’s a lot still to work on with these, but they have the potential to really transform both our cities and the way we travel as well,” she said.
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