Could pooled ride-sharing and autonomous vehicle technology improve sustainability? Probably. But the key finding of new research is that sustainability benefits come not from the technology that allows cars to drive themselves, but from the fact that passengers are using a service to share the ride.
Louis A. Merlin, assistant professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University, explores that potential in the article, “Transportation Sustainability Follows from More People in Fewer Vehicles, Not Necessarily Automation” published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85. No. 4). Merlin reminds readers that shifting to sustainable transportation is not a distant dream but rather a present reality with centralized fleet coordination technology and pooled rides.
Merlin’s definition of “pooled-ride services” includes traditional modes such as carpooling and vanpooling, and modern ride-hailing services such as Uber Pool and Lyft Shared that use centralized fleet coordination to group together riders traveling to and from nearby locations. Drawing from several studies, Merlin highlights the multiple benefits of increased use of pooled-ride services. With more people in fewer vehicles with a coordinated route to their destinations, pooled-ride services can:
- Reduce congestion by minimizing the total number of vehicles on the road
- Eliminate “deadheading,” or vehicle miles of travel an automobile spends looking for a passenger
- Reduce travel costs
- Reduce environmental impact
- Supplement existing public transit systems in a “first mile/last mile” model
- Provide more equitable access to sustainable transportation as riders share the cost of the trip
Currently, less than 10% of transportation network company trips are pooled, indicating opportunity to increase the use of pooled rides. In addition to supporting more comprehensive research of ride-sharing services, planners can help by advocating for transportation policies that encourage the growth of pooled-ride services. Examples include policies to accommodate parking pricing, congestion pricing, VMT fees, and other forms of user-pay financing. This is also an opportunity for planners to reorganize the structures that govern transportation with an eye toward broader goals of expanding equity and reducing environmental impact.
Merlin asserts that improving sustainability of shared rides does not require self-driving vehicles, but rather a focus on the existing technology we have today.