How self-driving cars might make cities better for everyone, if we plan ahead

city view
© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

NACTO is the National Association of City Transportation Officials; they put out the guidelines and recommendations for how to design safer and better cities. They have done great work on transit and bike lane design, and are now looking way out ahead, to the world of the self-driving car or autonomous vehicle (AV)

The wonderful thing about NACTO is that they are a counterbalance to the car and tech guys, who would design the system for the benefit of the car and its driver, and to clear the way for AVs would probably push the pedestrian off the road in ways that made jaywalking laws look benign. Instead, NACTO supports a “future transportation system that provides a sustainable, accessible, and affordable backbone to the strong cities at the center of our 21st century economy.” They start with an outline of their goals, looking for policies that:

  • promote safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, automated vehicle passengers, and all street users within the multi-modal urban context;
  • incentivize shared, automated, electric vehicles to reduce the environmental impacts of vehicular travel and refocus planning on the principle of mobility as a service;
  • support the future vision of communities as great places to live, work, and play by using technology as a tool to change land use as well as how streets are built;
  • rebalance the use of the right-of-way with less space for cars and more space for people walking, cycling, using transit and recreating;
  • support public transit by providing first and last mile connections to major transit lines via shared, automated vehicles, and by providing cost-effective, on-demand transit in lieu of low- performing fixed routes; and
  • improve mobility for all, contributing to a more equitable transportation system, where benefits reach all demographics and any negative effects are not unjustly concentrated.

To achieve these goals, NACTO makes some solid recommendations, the most radical being that in cities the AVs should be fully automated. They simply don’t trust drivers:

Plan for fully automated vehicles, not half-measures: Going halfway with partially automated vehicles, instead of fully automated, would require drivers to take over if the vehicle encounters a dangerous situation. In practice, such vehicles have been shown to encourage unsafe driving behavior, with drivers reading more, texting more, and generally being inattentive while the vehicle is in motion.

Highway vision© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

They should be limited to 25 MPH maximum. NACTO notes that spending billions on expressways right now probably is not the smart thing to do:

Rethink our streets and expressways: Advances in automated vehicle technology will dramatically increase our current expressways’ capacity, making some currently planned expressway expansions potential ‘white elephants’ that could overwhelm surface streets with traffic. Capacity must be carefully planned and routed.

They want the voices of cities to be heard; right now, it is not clear that anyone is listening to them. They want transportation officials from cities involved in all planning processes at state and federal levels.

city center© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

Finally, and most critically:

Plan for the future of cities. Future visioning for automated vehicles should begin from the inside out, from the centers of our economy, looking at land use as well as transportation. Theories of automation that focus simply on fitting more vehicles into an expressway lane every hour are beginning from the product of the economy rather than the motor of the economy. Great cities generate traffic; traffic does not generate great cities. Technology has the power to help communities achieve their visions both for transportation and for land use, taking public space back from congestion, traffic and parking. Parking requirements and general curb space usage are particular areas where a decrease in vehicle storage needs could bring about a new era for city streets. Planning should begin with a vision for the future city and put resources into solving for the best methods for providing mobility in low, medium, and high density corridors and environments, from a public investment and a total investment perspective.

We noted earlier that it seemed like cities were ignoring the impact of AVs; it seems that they are beginning to sit up and take notice. And as Janette Sadik-Khan notes they are getting their priorities straight:

Instead of adapting our cities to accommodate new transportation technologies, we need to adapt new transportation technologies to our cities in ways that make them safer, more efficient, and better places to live and work.

It is so important for planners, urban designers and urbanists to stake out their turf right now: AVs are coming down the road faster than we can imagine, and we can’t let the manufacturers and engineers write the rules. Instead, it has to work for all: pedestrians, cyclists, of all ages, abilities and incomes. That’s what planners are supposed to do.

Read the whole PDF or summary. All images courtesy of WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff and Farrells, who have been looking at the same topic.

Tags: Self-driving car | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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