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Autonomous Driving: Are Cities Ready? #TheGlobalGrid Pre...

Autonomous Driving: Are Cities Ready? #TheGlobalGrid Pre-Chat Post

We’ve all read it or heard it: It’s only a matter of time before self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, become part of our streetscape. For the first time in decades, here is an innovation that promises to have a lasting impact on our cities and change our approach to urban development and the

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We’ve all read it or heard it: It’s only a matter of time before self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, become part of our streetscape. For the first time in decades, here is an innovation that promises to have a lasting impact on our cities and change our approach to urban development and the way our cities are built.

Car manufacturers, such as Ford, General Motors, BMW and Volvo Cars are busy developing and testing the technology that would make driving autonomous. But tech giants are also in the race. Apple has disclosed for the first time, results from its ongoing research on self-driving vehicle technology. Uber has placed an order of 24,000 autonomous vehicles to enter into service between 2019 and 2021. And Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving car project, announced, in November 2017, that its self-driving cars are ready to hit the roads, without safety drivers.

The introduction of self-driving cars is, however, expected to happen gradually. Self-driving car developers might be keen to release their models but the prototypes being tested are still far from being fully autonomous. Cars with limited self-driving capabilities, or rather with advanced assisted-driving capabilities, will first become available before more autonomous vehicles can be adopted. A complete shift to self-driving cars that would leave traditional vehicles obsolete is not expected anytime soon.

Self-driving cars are expected to have a great impact on urban landscapes and urban transportation planning. Experts predict that they will revolutionize the way we move around our cities and how we regard car ownership. However, little research and no impact assessment can back most predictions and promises made by both self-driving cars proponents and their opponents.  

In the race to manufacture and release the first consumer self-driving car, safety is often presented to both end users and cities as one of the main reasons to fully adopt self-driving cars as soon as the first prototypes become available on the market. Cars with self-driving abilities are deemed safer than cars driven by humans and the sooner cities and users adopt them, the sooner hundreds of lives would be saved from traffic accidents.

Self-driving technology also holds great potential for the development of more efficient and responsive public transportation systems with self-driving vehicles becoming the norm for public transit fleets. Shuttle buses could become available to bridge the last mile between transit hubs and the neighborhoods least served by public transportation. In the long term, on-demand shared rides could even replace regular bus lines and provide a streamlined public transit experience for both operators and users.

Improved accessibility won’t only concern the least connected neighborhoods in a city but will also be extended to disadvantaged groups such as the elderly and the handicapped. Moving around cities will also become easier and more convenient for a large number of low-income residents and students who are expected to greatly benefit from the services of shared self-driving vehicle ridership.  

With more efficient urban transportation and mobility patterns, much of the urban land currently used for parking garages and on-street parking could be redeveloped for better and more profitable uses. Both the city and users will have space for more inner-city housing, public amenities, bike and pedestrian alleyways and for denser shopping districts in currently zoned strip mall areas.

Because of the diversity of the backgrounds of the companies and stakeholders involved in developing self-driving cars; research, tech and traditional manufacturers, the vehicles are taking different shapes and are developed to fill different purposes. However, most of the models being tested seem more like an upgrade of the cars we’re driving today and the technology seems to initially be developed for privately owned cars. While self-driving cars hold many promises for increased accessibility, safer rides, travel time improvement and increased lane capacity on highways, this will mean more congestion on the roads if users opt massively to own self-driving cars and move as single passengers instead of using public transportation.

If traveling by car becomes more comfortable, longer commutes more bearable and most probably cheaper, people might have more than a reason to move further away from city centers to more affordable, larger homes, quieter and cleaner environments, creating more demand for suburban living. A new sprawling trend will have a damaging environmental impact and will reverse the inner-city revival that has been experienced by most American cities in the past decade.

The introduction of self-driving cars is also expected to impact cities revenue streams. A side effect of the decreased need for parking and safe driving will be reflected in city revenues generated from parking fees, parking tickets, and traffic citations. On the positive side, increased accessibility to neighborhoods previously considered remote and less desirable could lead to an increase of property values, increasing city revenues from property taxes.

All these changes and much more will pose challenges for planners and cities who will face pressing needs to upgrade their transportation infrastructure, modify their planning approaches, revise their zoning ordinances, land use provisions, and parking requirements. Budget adjustment and new fiscal policies will also need to be considered to cover the costs of new infrastructure developments and answer the question of how users will pay for transportation in a future where autonomous vehicles are the norm.

Cities, like Austin, Texas are already preparing to host self-driving cars on their streets. Others, like San Jose, California, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are running pilots to evaluate how self-driving cars will impact their traffic rules and transit planning. Many more, in the US, and around the world, have committed to testing autonomous vehicles or are in the process of running surveys to host future pilots. Yet, in 2015, only 6% of the US 50 largest cities have included an assessment of the potential impact of driverless technology in their transportation plans.

How can cities prepare for the imminent advent of self-driving cars without compromising their livability? And ultimately, how can they proactively approach the short and long-term regulatory, planning and governance challenges that they will be faced with? 

These questions will be asked during our Twitter chat this month. Join us and our panelists: Bern Grush and John Niles (End Of Driving), Blair Schlecter (Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce) and Mitch Turck (Mitch Turck), from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. PST on Wednesday, January 17th.

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Sarah Essbai is an architect, urban planner and independent researcher based in Zaandam, in The Netherlands. As of September 2017, she is leading the communications and marketing efforts of The Global Grid.

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