The rise of autonomous vehicles presents “sweeping opportunities as well as serious risks,” according to Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, a new guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that addresses the impact of autonomous technology. “We have a historic opportunity to reclaim the street and correct the mistakes of a century of urban planning,” says NACTO chair and former New York City department of transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Hon. ASLA. However, this opportunity is contingent upon proactive policies that put people – not cars – at the center of planning and design decisions.
Despite the hype surrounding self-driving cars, “the potential benefits of automation are not guaranteed,” warns NACTO. Among the potentially negative effects of autonomous vehicles:
- “Traffic and emissions could skyrocket,” hampering efforts to meet climate goals and undoing years of progress at moving cities toward more sustainable approaches to transportation;
- “’Robo-routes’ – walls of autonomous vehicles with few gaps – could divide communities,” repeating the mistakes of 20th century urban highway planning and ruining the street level experience for pedestrians and cyclists;
- “People could be relegated to inconvenient and unpleasant pedestrian bridges,” removing life, vitality, and community from streets; and
- “High-priced, inequitable mobility could supplant transit,” undoing years of investment and progress in the growth of mass-transit and sustainable, transit-oriented development.
To avoid this future, NACTO says “cities need strong policies to guide the future of automation and help communities shape powerful technologies around their goals, rather than the other way around.” These policies include reducing speed limits; continuing to invest in active modes of transit such as walking, cycling, and mass-transit; pricing curb access; and using data to create safer and more efficient streets.
With the right set of policies in place, autonomous vehicles could represent a powerful tool in helping cities meet transportation and sustainability goals. Streets designed for autonomous technology have the potential to be safer, quieter, and greener, with narrower vehicle lanes, more public transportation, wider sidewalks and bike lanes, and integrated green infrastructure. They can also be more efficient, moving more people and goods with fewer vehicles.
For this vision to become reality, however, cities and communities need to be in control of policy making – not mobility companies. If cities do not take the lead now, “transportation network companies and technology companies will shape urban transportation policy by default,” says NACTO.
Already, there are signs of the risks and challenges posed by new mobility technology. Studies are finding that the increasing popularity of ride-hailing services is causing congestion on city streets. And earlier this year, an Uber-operated autonomous vehicle on a test drive struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, raising questions about the safety of self-driving technology. These developments underscore the need for cities, engineers, and designers to address the self-driving revolution proactively and critically.
However, there are hopeful signs that technology companies invested in the autonomous future are taking their impact seriously. Earlier this year, a group of technology and mobility companies, including Uber and Lyft, signed a joint declaration of Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, which pledges to promote equity, support fair user fees, and prioritize people over vehicles. Noticeably absent from the list of signatories, however, is Waymo, the Alphabet subsidiary that has is planning to launch its first fleet of autonomous taxis later this year. Car manufacturers, who are rushing to introduce their autonomous products and services into the marketplace, are also not participants.
In the face of these looming changes, “waiting to see how events unfold is not a viable option,” writes NACTO. Cities must act now to guarantee that that “automation is harnessed to serve the goals of safety, equity, public health, and sustainability” and not roll back more than a decade of progress in the realm of sustainable transportation. “Streets in the autonomous age should give ultimate priority to pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders,” says NACTO. “The future street is a place for people.”