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Heinz College Students Craft Autonomous Vehicle Policies for the City of Pittsburgh

By Scottie Barsotti

Autonomous vehicle policy is complicated. Recently, a class of Carnegie Mellon University students spent a weekend debating and devising recommendations and presented their best ideas to the mayor’s office.


Any policy change is complex, but some are stickier than others. That’s certainly true of autonomous vehicles, the very existence of which is thrusting policymakers into uncharted territory. The deployment of autonomous vehicles has impacts not only on mobility and labor, but on infrastructure, parking, policing, insurance, shipping, the environment, energy, public health…the list goes on. A disruption that will impact society across such a broad area of concerns is uniquely challenging to craft policy for.

Over a chilly February weekend, more than 30 Carnegie Mellon University students packed into a classroom with CMU faculty and Pittsburgh civic leaders to discuss and devise new autonomous vehicle policy recommendations. The most compelling outcomes from the weekend were presented to the office of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto for consideration.

“Transportation itself is changing. It’s not just a question of building bridges and re-paving roads,” said Alex Pazuchanics (MPM ’17), a Heinz College alumnus who is now Assistant Director of Planning, Policy, and Permitting for the City of Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. “It’s focusing on mobility and moving people, not just vehicles.”

Autonomous vehicles are a hot topic across the world, but in Pittsburgh they’re already a fact of life. Driverless Ubers have logged many test miles in the city’s neighborhoods and numerous other companies and startups have set up shop to develop their own technologies, cementing Pittsburgh as the autonomous driving capital of the U.S.

The testing and roll-out of driverless vehicles has huge implications for the city, and the eventuality of it is something that city officials need to grapple with. But the actual policy on this issue is still fairly thin and under-developed. CMU students—being uniquely situated at the birthplace of autonomous vehicles—want to change that.

The weekend-long course, which was hosted by Heinz College, assembled the students, Heinz leadership, faculty, and expert guests from local and regional government, transportation, development, and planning organizations for two full days, with the goal of creating policy recommendations that were collaborative, comprehensive, and able to be implemented.

Heinz College Professor Rick Stafford, who led the weekend course, said the societal consequences of autonomous vehicles are a major point of interest at CMU.

“This was a futuring exercise, essentially asking ‘what does this tech mean?’” said Stafford. “There’s a real need for this kind of convening, but there’s no official mechanism in place. We can take the lead on these discussions.”

(To get a sense of how big an issue this is and CMU’s clout in the conversation, take a look at the roster of influencers our students got to engage with during the weekend.)

Stan Caldwell, Executive Director of CMU’s Traffic21 Research Institute, told the students, “This is the biggest disruption in transportation in over 100 years since the advent of the motorized vehicle.”

“You have the ability to impact the mayor’s thinking on an important policy issue. Elected officials don’t have the kind of time we have this weekend.” 

The groups focused on the effect of autonomous vehicle traffic on Pittsburgh’s Central Business District (CBD). Sean Luther, Executive Director of Innovation Pittsburgh and Envision Downtown, and one of the leaders who consulted on the weekend, called Pittsburgh’s CBD “one of the most economically productive square miles anywhere in the United States,” which means the introduction of autonomous vehicles will present many-faceted challenges that affect both commuters and commerce.

“We’re already seeing a battle between parking, loading, accessibility, freight, and transit in downtown and the CBD,” said Luther.

The presence of city and county officials allowed the students some insight into their agencies’ capabilities and processes as they discussed their ideas. 

“We got a real sense of the patchwork of entities that have to interact for any of these projects to get off the ground,” said Chase Klingensmith (MPM ’16), a Heinz College alumnus who participated in the class. Klingensmith said that the experience helped to make an abstract idea concrete, and allowed for a deep dive into a new policy area.

In addition to autonomous vehicles, the discussions touched on the effects of transportation networking companies (TNCs, e.g. Uber, Lyft), the electrification of vehicles, and advanced wireless technology and how it impacts the transportation sector.

On April 10, the organizing team presented their recommendations at the office of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. In attendance were members of key city departments (including Mobility and Infrastructure as well as Innovation and Performance), the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, as well as leadership from CMU and Heinz College.

Klingensmith was selected to make the presentation to the mayor’s office, and he explained the benefits of these ideas to us. Some highlights of the recommendations included:

  • Introduction of a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax to replace revenue lost from gas taxes and parking;

“There are other cities that have faced congestion problems and have incorporated taxes like these to encourage people to carpool more. Many people consider VMTs to be equitable because then commuters are being charged based on the distance they travel.”

  • Repurpose parking facilities and plan new facilities for new uses and new revenue sources;

“You could retrofit parking facilities for electric vehicle charging, building 5G or other data infrastructure, or as a transfer point for public transit and TNCs. It may also be possible to create green spaces, like a rooftop park or urban garden.”

  • Explore the use of electronic autonomous shuttles;

“Penn State [University] is working on implementing an autonomous EV shuttle service with a set route on one of their branch campuses. We looked at that as a use case. Shuttles can help with the first and last mile problem many people face.”

  • Require TNCs to share data, at least in part;

“If there’s data collection happening, the city should receive part of that to use in their planning. TNCs should be required to provide data collected on city streets, and the data can be anonymized to address privacy concerns.”

  • Utilize visualization technology for planning and to increase public engagement.

“There is potential to use visualization techniques similar to what’s being developed at CMU’s Remaking Cities Institute, to show citizens what plans would look like and increase public engagement.” 

Klingensmith added that other recommendations included ideas regarding digital curb mapping, updates to licensing and right-of-way fees, increasing mobility data analytics capabilities, and the establishment of a “Technology Planning and Response Task Force.”

Regarding the list of recommendations, Stafford suggested that these are not far-fetched proposals, but rather changes that could all be realistically implemented in the next five years, as TNCs grow and electric vehicles become more common.


Consequences of Autonomous Vehicles

Hosted by the Heinz College of Information Systems & Policy

Guest experts:

Matt Barron
Program Officer for Sustainability, Heinz Endowments
Board Member, Pittsburgh Parking Authority

Stan Caldwell
Executive Director, Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic21 Institute and University Transportation Centers

Don Carter
Director, Remaking Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

David Danks
Department Head & L.L. Thurstone Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University

Sean Luther
Executive Director, InnovatePGH
Executive Director, Envision Downtown

David Onorato, CAPP
Executive Director, Pittsburgh Parking Authority

Alex Pazuchanics (MPM ’17)
Assistant Director of Planning, Policy, and Permitting, City of Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure

Sean Qian
Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Director, CMU Mobility Analytics Center

Costa Samaras
Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

Merrill Stable
President, Alco Parking Corporation

David Wohlwill, AICP
Program Manager of Long-Range Planning, Port Authority of Allegheny County


Organizing team:

Rick Stafford
Service Professor of Public Policy, Heinz College
Former Director of CMU’s Metro21 and Traffic21 initiatives

Jackie Speedy
Associate Dean, School of Public Policy & Management at Heinz College

Al Biehler
Professor of Transportation Policy, Carnegie Mellon University
Former Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation 

Tejas Bisen
Teaching Assistant