By Dan Sperling.

Maybe you use Zipcar, Lyft or Uber or know someone who does. You’ve probably seen a few electric vehicles on the streets. And you’ve undoubtedly heard and read stories about self-driving cars coming soon and changing everything.

But how fast are the three revolutions in electric, shared and automated vehicles happening, and will they converge? Will many of us really be willing to sell our cars and share rides and vehicles with others? Will we trust computers to drive? How aggressively will regions and nations encourage — or discourage — these revolutions?

City leaders can anticipate rather than react to revolutionary transportation changes. Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area, says, “Now is the time to ensure our regions reap all the possible benefits of these changes. We are at a crossroads, with many possible paths. Some lead to a far more unjust and polluted world. Others can deliver us from that world. The more attractive future requires leadership.”

Potential Scenarios

The transition to shared, electric and automated vehicles could evolve in very different directions. The effects of driverless cars on traffic congestion and sprawl could be very positive or very negative. Electric vehicles (EVs), including those powered by hydrogen, will decrease the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. Shared use of vehicles, when rides are pooled, would reduce the number of vehicles on the road and therefore lessen congestion and emissions. Automation will extend the benefits of shared mobility and electrification.

In the most positive scenario, pooled, electric, driverless cars eliminate congestion, reduce local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and enhance accessibility. In today’s world, personal cars are among the most underutilized assets in our economy, used only about 5 percent of the time on average. Ride pooling would enable cities to repurpose areas now designated for parking, freeing up space to make neighborhoods safer for walking and biking.

The potential synergies from combining the three revolutions are huge. Studies from independent entities such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the International Transport Forum and the University of Washington suggest that shared, electric and automated vehicles could result in a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Electric vehicles would reduce emissions because they utilize energy more efficiently than internal combustion engine vehicles and would benefit from the shift to renewable and low-carbon electricity.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg is looking to head down this sustainable path. He says, “We’re asking how can driverless cars, especially powered by alternative fuels, combat global climate change and air pollution? How can they be used to enhance our city’s transit? How are we using them to connect our neighborhoods to opportunities?”

Cities and transit operators will play a big role in ensuring that the three revolutions benefit everyone. If driverless cars are personally owned, it will mean more traffic and more cost, exacerbating the divide between mobility haves and have-nots. It would also lead to more sprawl as people seek affordable homes farther and farther away from where they work, opting for long commutes and cheap mortgages over proximity and more expensive real estate. Cities can counteract new pressures for fringe development with compact development strategies and supporting development around high-density transit corridors, as well as ensuring that most driverless vehicles are used for pooling by mobility service companies. And transit operators can assist by partnering with mobility service companies to increase first- and last-mile access and fill gaps, allowing them to do what they do best: serve dense traffic corridors.

Automation and pooling can be turned into an opportunity. We can shift to taxing items with negative impacts — such as pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion — and reduce taxes on things with positive impacts, especially income and work. In addition, we can rethink job security. In the short term, we will see increased jobs, and over time we can adopt safety nets for those workers stranded by the transformation who did nothing to merit the loss of their income and profession.

Challenges for Policy-Makers

Political leadership during these transformations is critical. Choosing which path to take will not fall solely on the shoulders of any single city, state or national leader. Safety regulation of driverless technology rightly falls to state and federal agencies, but cities will need to work with private industry to develop partnerships and policies that result in broader benefits.

“National regulatory consistency in autonomous vehicle policy is extremely important, but it will take a collaborative approach that includes engagement with cities to manifest the sustainable mobility transformation we all want to achieve,” says Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy.

Developing policies that steer these three revolutions to the public interest will not be simple, but it is achievable. The challenges are substantial, but so are the benefits. Let us not be shortsighted and narrow-minded. There is enormous potential for partnering, creative thinking and equitable public policy-making.

Annual Conference Session Takes a Closer Look

Transportation is on the cusp of a revolution. More models of electric vehicles are being offered than ever before. New app-based mobility services are now part of our daily lives, and the advent of driverless vehicles is close at hand. The convergence of these transportation revolutions has the potential to significantly improve the livability of communities, though this outcome is not inevitable.

This topic is the focus of a session at the League of California Cities 2017 Annual Conference & Expo, where attendees will learn about innovative applications and emerging partnerships, hear the latest scientific insights on potential public benefits and impacts and explore the role of local government in shaping this new transportation paradigm. Panelists will include Dan Sperling, author of this article; Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg; Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger and Lyft Transportation Policy Manager Debs Schrimmer. The session will be held Friday, Sept. 15, from 8:00 to 9:15 a.m. See the conference program for location details.

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Dan Sperling is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and environmental science and policy. He is also director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at

© 2017 League of California Cities®. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the September 2017 issue of Western City® magazine, the monthly publication of the League of California Cities®. For related information, visit