Autonomous vehicles could spell the end of urban design as we know it

September 8, 2019

Ever since the first mass produced cars made it to the roads in the early 20th century, the whole urban infrastructure has been designed to accommodate them. Modern cities are automobile-centred by default, although side effects like congestion, slow commutes and shortage of parking spaces often cast doubt on that statement. Today’s vehicles are evolving fast, adopting more and more autonomous features on their way towards fully fledged self-driving status. Cities can’t afford to fall behind in their effort to remain fit for the autonomous vehicles (AVs) of the near future.

Self-driving cars’ emergence will bring a thorough change in the way city infrastructure functions; its effect will be felt far beyond roads and parking places.

Simon Sherrington, MD

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Self-driving cars’ emergence will bring a thorough change in the way city infrastructure functions; its effect will be felt far beyond roads and parking places. Some argue that AVs will reduce the number of car accidents, ease traffic congestion and open up more spaces for housing and green areas as fewer car parks will be needed. Others are convinced that self-driving cars will lead to intensified sprawling and even heavier congestion (everyone will be able own a car since no driving licence will be required). How cities cope with the mounting pressure of AVs’ inevitable arrival will depend on urban planners, policy and law makers. Carmakers and insurers will have their say too.

To share a ride or not to share a ride

There are many aspects to the AV-centred transport system of the future that should be taken into consideration by urban planners.  One of them is ridesharing. This can ease congestion, but make other public transport less attractive, and may cause city centres to become even more densely populated. Self-driving shared vehicles can use large, space-efficient car parks, which will eliminate the need for parking spaces across city centres, because after people are dropped off at their destinations, the shared vehicle can park itself in an appropriate location until it is needed again. Roads will become narrower as AVs, unlike human drivers, can be programmed to drive with greater precision and smaller gaps.

AVs can open the door to a major urban repurposing in favour of building more houses, local solar power plants or green areas.  City dwellers will own fewer cars and could spend their commute time working or resting. Fewer cars could mean shorter travel times, less traffic, and a smaller environmental impact. But a deeply ingrained consumer mentality means that many people may still prefer to own their AV and use it privately.

Legally allowed private AV ownership may result in an increase in the number of cars as people who can’t drive or don’t like driving may feel tempted to acquire self-driving vehicles, if the price is right.  An eventual rise in the number of people owning cars could result in busier roads. Building roads solely purposed for self-driving vehicles may be counterproductive: Gartner and Loup Ventures forecasts suggest that by 2040 those vehicles will be pervasive.  Privately owned AVs will also make longer commute distances more tolerable as no driving effort will be needed.  This will benefit suburban areas and construction industry (or result in unsightly urban sprawl and the reduction of green belt land, depending on your perspective).

Road challenges

Transportation expert Ben Pierce, quoted by Forbes magazine, has outlined seven ways roads should prepare for AVs. These include providing power lines and fiber-optic cable in all new infrastructure, improving data collection and data exchange between AVs, using Bluetooth beacons to make cars “read” road signs, teaching vehicles how to read human signs, reinforcing the road surface as the weight of every single vehicle could be in two-wheel tracks (although the AV control systems could easily be programmed to avoid this problem), and striping the asphalt everywhere so the cars know how to position themselves at all times.

Despite all the efforts and heavy investment, AVs’ commercial debut may catch city planners slightly off-guard. Flawed urban design has already been blamed for a fatal accident involving an Uber self-driving taxi. It took place in Arizona, US in March 2018 and resulted in the death of a pedestrian. Cato Institute experts argued that the fatality could have not been prevented even by the most experienced human driver and was due to a poor street design. The victim used a “No pedestrians” media strip to cross a busy road due to the lack of a proper crosswalk in the vicinity. If the experts’ assumptions are correct more similar accidents could again occur in the future.

The emergence of AVs on our roads is no longer a question of if but when. Their success will depend on the proactive approach adopted by all interested parties. Potential risks and challenges should be carefully assessed through a broad debate and detailed planning. The aims should be eliminating all the uncertainties related to self-driving cars and making the most of the advantages they offer.

[Image licensed to Ingram Image.]

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