Reset the Car Conversation with Autonomous Cars

Today, Strong Towns member and guest contributor, Alexander Dukes offers a perspective on the opportunity that autonomous cars provide for build stronger towns.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have the potential to revolutionize America’s transportation system. The safety, convenience, and traffic improvements are usually the benefits people cite most often when discussing AVs. Those are revolutionary improvements. However, this article will explore how the economic efficiency of autonomous vehicles may allow us to reset the century old conversation on cars. I am hopeful this reset conversation can help restore America to a tradition of building for people, rather than cars.

I. The Economics of the Autonomous Vehicle

For most of America, the dominant form of transportation is the private vehicle. This is largely because American culture places a high value on individual freedom and independence.

For most of America, the dominant form of transportation is the private vehicle. This is largely because American culture places a high value on individual freedom and independence. With respect to cars, this culture manifests as a desire to go “where I want, as far as I want, when I want.” Today, that ideal requires a privately owned automobile. Autonomous vehicles can fulfill that ideal of freedom without private car ownership. Mobility service companies like Uber and Lyft are currently testing AV prototypes. Once these companies achieve full autonomy, economies of scale and volume will drive their prices below the cost of private ownership.

All cars require insurance, maintenance, fuel, and financing. Today, individual owners are responsible for all of these costs. According to AAA, the average American pays about 58 cents a mile to drive their privately owned car. Once a service like Uber becomes autonomous, all of the costs associated with its automobiles will be normalized into a single entity (the Uber corporation) and distributed across all of its users (millions of people). Due to these economies of scale, volume, and the widespread use of electric vehicles, it is estimated that end-users will eventually pay about 40 cents  a mile for an Uber ride. At 40 cents a mile, using an Uber AV would amount to $2,700 in savings per year over driving a privately owned car (see math below).

15,000 miles driven annually x 0.58 cents = $8,700

15,000 miles driven annually x 0.40 cents = $6,000

            $2,700 in savings

Once autonomous vehicles become ubiquitous, it will no longer make financial sense for the majority of Americans to personally own a car.

Politically, this presents an opportunity to challenge the automotive industry on the way it influences our building tradition. No longer will advocates for slimmer roadways, wider sidewalks, and fewer parking lots be seen as making life harder for the driving public. Rather, it will be the responsibility of computer algorithms to navigate those pedestrian-friendly features. Much like riding a train, bus, or airplane, the rider simply takes a seat and waits until they arrive at their destination. Together, the ability to accommodate rider inattentiveness and the savings realized from AV travel are what will allow us to reset the conversation on cars. Now, let’s explore a new way to have that conversation.

II.  The Reset: Pay Your Way to Put People First

The reduced price of AV travel presents governments with an opportunity to sustainably finance maintenance and improvements to “right-of-way” infrastructure like streets, roads, and highways. If travel via AV costs about 40 cents a mile, 18 cents of “headroom” exists between what it costs to use an AV and the 58 cents a mile it costs to use a private car.  As AVs become commonplace, governments should tax vehicles by the miles they travel rather than the fuel they consume. (Taxing fuel consumption is impossible with electric vehicles anyway).

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Taxing road mileage to pay for road maintenance and improvement constrains infrastructure budgets to market feedback loops, rather than the desires of engineers or traffic “experts.” Moreover, because the amount of money collected from these taxes alone would be sufficient to pay for maintenance and improvements, money would only be disbursed when enough cash had been collected to pay for proposed projects directly. This “cash on the barrel” approach would end the practice of using municipal bonds and revenue derived from property taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements. Travelers should pay directly for the roads they drive on. The Congressional Budget Office has highlighted the benefits of this approach.

Since 2015, Americans have driven about 3.2 trillion miles. Assuming that 3.2 trillion vehicle miles traveled persists into the future where AVs are commonplace; I suggest the average American should pay a 6 cent mileage tax for every vehicle mile traveled (local + state + federal mileage taxes adding up to 6 cents on average). This would raise the cost of travel via AV to 46 cents. A 6 cent mileage tax would provide the revenue to maintain the auto infrastructure we need, and transform excess infrastructure we don’t need into places that are built for people. Below, I describe four applications of the 6 cent mileage tax that can accomplish just that:

Application 1: Maintenance

A little less than half of the money collected in mileage taxes would collect would go toward the maintenance of the existing system of highways, bridges, roads, and streets. State and local governments spent $118 billion dollars on “highways” in 2014 (Congressional Budget Office p.6). About 60 percent of that went to maintenance of the existing system. You may have heard that we’re a bit behind on our road maintenance, so let’s assume to keep our roads and bridges in good condition we need 70 percent of $118 billion- which equals about $83 billion dollars a year. A 2.6 cent mileage tax on the 3.2 trillion miles driven each year would yield $83 billion dollars.

This small, 2.6 cent mileage tax would be enough to pay for maintenance and long term sustainment of the United State’s existing highway and street network. States and municipalities would still need to determine precisely the best way to divvy up the tax. However, this method allows for the maintenance of auto infrastructure to be paid for entirely by user fees.

Application 2: Reconstruction of Stroads into Streets

 Application 2 would use monies collected from a local mileage tax to pay for reconstruction of streets that are too auto focused (a.k.a. stroads). Money could be used to widen sidewalks, place power poles underground, reduce turn radii, institute a road diet, eliminate curb cuts, plant trees, and construct buffered bike lanes. By collecting a local mileage tax, municipalities would no longer have to wait for money to “fall from the heavens” (state/Federal DOTs) to pay for major road reconstructions.

Application 3: Parking Deck Caches and Removal of Surface Parking

Application 3 deals with the problem of excessive surface parking lots. Local mileage tax money would be used to incentivize the infill of private surface parking lots, and pay for the construction of “staging area” parking for AVs. When AV services sufficiently displace standard cars, there should be no reason for AVs to park on the oversupplied surface lots currently distributed throughout our towns and cities.

Once an AV drops off a customer it will either drive to another customer pickup location, or drive to a staging area for recharging and mechanical/cosmetic servicing. In larger cities, these staging areas would be in the form of vertical parking decks distributed strategically across the jurisdiction and located in space deemed appropriate by the local community. In a smaller city or town, it might be better to have the staging area exist as a large surface parking lot sequestered in the outskirts.

Autonomous vehicles afford us the opportunity to concentrate parking in spaces and structures designed to accommodate cars without encumbering the civic space around them. With parking concentrated in these staging areas, developers can infill existing surface parking lots with new shops, parks, offices, or housing. Galina Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual will be instructive in this effort.

 Claiborne Avenue prior to I10 construction.   Source

 Claiborne Avenue prior to I10 construction. Source

 Claiborne Avenue today under I10.     Source

 Claiborne Avenue today under I10. Source

Application 4: Deconstruction and Realignment of Inner City Highways

Finally, the fourth application of the mileage tax revenues would be to deconstruct and realign the elevated and sunken highways that have gashed downtown neighborhoods. In many cases, these highways are Interstates constructed in the mid-20th century whose routes were literally designed to target minority communities. For example: Prior to I10 arriving, Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans used to serve as a “community space lined with large oak trees and azalea gardens” for the Tremé community—the oldest African American neighborhood in the United States. Against the wishes of residents, the construction of I10 tore down the trees and robbed the community of its recreation area. Today I10 exists as an elevated highway that overshadows Claiborne. Restoring this area (and areas like it) to its former condition should be a moral imperative for the United States.

A one cent Federal mileage tax on the 3.2 trillion miles driven every year would generate $32 billion annually toward removing inner city highways across the country. Annually, the Federal DOT would solicit proposals from cities with highways running through their downtowns and choose a variety of winners for the funds. As these highways are removed and replaced with boulevards friendly to pedestrians, infill development would eventually replace the highway gashes running through these communities. Downtown street networks would be reconnected. Shops, offices, and homes would return along these streets to fill the voids the highway left behind. In time, these communities would hopefully regain the vibrancy the highways stole from them.

III.   Conclusion

I believe that the shift from traditional cars to automated vehicles could be as consequential as the emergence of the car itself. When automobiles were beginning to take over the roads in the 1920’s, automotive interests largely ran roughshod over the fledgling disciplinarians and activists that tried to protect the vibrant, walkable streets of their communities. The financial benefits of AVs present us with an opportunity to reset the car conversation that we have lost for the past hundred years. As citizens, urbanists, and public administrators we must be prepared with new ideas when autonomous vehicles become a ubiquitous form of transportation. We can’t afford to allow automotive interests to dominate our communities the next century.

(Top image from Mercedes-Benz

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About the Author

Alexander Dukes is a United States Air Force Community Planner working at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Tuskegee University and Auburn University, with a Bachelor’s Political Science and a Master’s in Community Planning, respectively. With this background, Alexander focuses his planning work on both urban public policy and the design of the physical realm for both military and civilian applications. Alexander is principally concerned with building sustainable cities, towns, and neighborhoods that provide all citizens- regardless of income or ethnicity, with access to meaningful employment, civic resources, and beautiful places.