Author: Petra Hurtado
Last week, I went to an event on driverless cars, or autonomous vehicles (AV), and how they will impact the future of mobility and urban development, hosted by the American Planning Association Chicago Metro Section. The event named “Driverless Cars … Driving Change” featured a great panel with a mix of planning experts from local agencies and the public sector, researchers, scientists, and engineers from the private sector.
I was excited to hear all the positives and negatives of this new technology from different perspectives of different disciplines and what, in their opinions, the big changes for cities would be. Pretty soon in the conversation it became clear, no matter who you were talking to – from city officials to private industry, from hands-on engineers to scientists – AV are not something futuristic that may be part of a science-fiction movie; AV are already here and they will be out there in masses in the very near future. The good news is, most urban mobility stakeholders are aware of this development; and they are preparing for it.
Jennifer Henaghan, Deputy Research Director and Manager of the Green Communities Center at APA, pointed out that on the government level the discussion is mainly about safety. That is good! If anything, we want traffic to become safer. Technological changes are happening quite fast and governments do have to be prepared for them. With AV, pretty much anything on the street will have to change: new parking regulations, right-of-way standards, signs and signals, lane width, etc. In general, with autonomous vehicles, we expect traffic to become safer (apparently, we trust machines more than we trust human beings, which makes sense when we look at how distracted by everyday life we sometimes are).
In addition to the safety aspect, AV are also expected to improve traffic efficiency. Imagine if every traffic participant is programmed to understand the movements of everyone else! In addition, all user movements are programmed totally in line with traffic signals, traffic signs, and other regulations such as the rules of the road. An automation of traffic would most likely make higher speeds possible as well. With more traffic efficiency, we would need fewer lanes and therefore less space for traffic in general. Joe Iacobucci, Director of Transit and New Mobility Practice Leader at Sam Schwartz, mentioned a study from Stockholm that says theoretically 10% of all vehicles moving around could move the entire 100% of traffic that’s currently out on the streets.
Ezra Kramer, Project Manager at Walker Parking Consultants, sees AV from an even more holistic point of view. According to him, the discussion is not just about AV, it is about Transportation Network Companies (so called TNCs) such as Uber, parking apps, ZipCar, etc. and how they will change society and integrate new technologies. The discussion includes topics such as the shared economy, options for ride hailing, electric vehicles, and so on. Parking will be revolutionized. People won’t own cars anymore the way they do today; they will share them with others. Therefore, we won’t need as many parking spaces anymore, as AV can move around picking up and dropping off people wherever they desire to. We will need pick-up and drop-off zones instead of parking spaces. We will need off-site parking instead of on-site parking.
AV will definitely bring many positive aspects to the way transportation is happening. With transportation becoming more efficient, we will get rid of a lot of waste: waste of time, waste of space, waste of natural resources, etc. Most likely, transportation will also become safer in terms of fewer accidents on the road. (I am not so sure about that though once people start hacking AV and interfering with traffic that way; but that’s a different story.). Another quite amazing aspect is the advantage this will bring for physically challenged people who haven’t been able to drive and have been restricted in public transit use due to inaccessible stations and vehicles.
However, a point that worries me is that it seems like this technology is another reason to concentrate urban planning and design around the automobile, as pointed out by Jennifer Henaghan. Since its invention, planners had a tendency to build cities around the car, having ignored other modes of transportation for the longest time. We are now in an era where urban planners have finally started focusing their plans more on people than cars, integrating alternative modes of transportation, designing public spaces for people instead of cars, and in general, thinking of more sustainable, car-independent mobility. With AV, we have to be careful not to fall back into old planning habits of concentrating everything around traffic numbers, making AV usage as comfortable as possible, risking a new increase in vehicle miles travelled (VMT), and with that, the development of even more urban sprawl than what we created with the conventional automobile.
In addition, we have to raise the question if cities that concentrate their future plans around this super-efficient door-to-door transportation are going to be good for our health. Joe Iacobucci emphasized this issue during the panel discussion: The main issue is not traffic safety; inactivity kills more people than car accidents. Looking at the way AV transportation is envisioned, people will most likely walk or ride their bikes even less. The lack of physical activity is already a huge problem we have to deal with today, as it results in obesity, cardiovascular diseases, anxieties, and other illnesses.
Another question is: Will AV be a competitor for public transit? Joe Iacobucci argues AV will be a great addition to public transit to solve the first-mile and last-mile problem. AV can therefore have a positive effect on public transit ridership. People don’t have to walk to their train station or bus stop anymore; they can just hail an AV. “Nothing can move the masses like mass transit and AV is a great addition to make systems more efficient.” Especially when it comes to service after midnight: “We don’t need a bus on the road at 3am.” Why not send an AV to the bus stop instead of the bus during times when ridership is too low to make transit economically feasible. Linking the different modes of transportation will be a crucial task in preparation for AV; however, a task that has to be balanced with the need for physical activity.
Planners will have to look very thoroughly into questions such as: Are we going to walk less because it is so convenient to just hail an AV? Do we have to create more active spaces that will encourage people to exercise, walk, ride their bikes or engage in other outdoor activities? Are AV going to make us fat?
Obliviously, the discussion is not about AV technology itself, but about everything else that comes with it. Maybe we can use the spaces we don’t need for traffic anymore (due to fewer parking spaces and narrower lanes) to create beautiful parks, bike lanes, and other public spaces for recreation, community events, and outdoor activities. And again… I am revolving the plans for public spaces around the plans for AV integration. We are definitely facing new challenges when it comes to designing outdoor spaces. What will make people go outside? People are already getting less and less active and disconnected from nature, which impacts their health tremendously. How will we have to design public spaces so people will still use them?
I don’t want to criticize AV. Quite the opposite, I think it is an extremely exciting time seeing all these technological inventions coming to fruition. However, there are still a lot of unanswered questions and we have to be really smart about how we are going to plan our future cities, integrating AV, while providing for healthy, high-quality, and sustainable communities. We can’t just think about the re-use and re-design of spaces we don’t need for automobile transportation anymore. We have to plan more holistically, focusing on the people and how we can invite and motivate them to spend time outside, to walk, to ride their bikes, and to engage with their communities. Otherwise, we are at risk of making the same mistakes we did in the 1950s when we started concentrating our planning efforts around cars.
The way AV are being envisioned today will make inactivity even more attractive and easier for everyone. We as planners have to make sure we don’t forget to focus our plans on the people who live, work, and play in our cities. We have to ensure that they can live healthy and high-quality lives in the cities we plan. When integrating AV technologies into our cities, we have to make sure we plan for people and not for cars.