Eric Reguly on How Self-Driving Cars Will Kill Cities, Not Save Them

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space comparison uber and AV

This TreeHugger was so excited when first confronted with the idea of the self-driving car almost six years ago. Even back then it was predicted that they would be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them. (and not common until 2040). I have written about how they will improve our cities and towns, making our cities better and greener.

However since that time a lot of skepticism has crept in. Being seriously into walkable urbanism and cyclable cities, I began to worry about how self driving cars will interact with pedestrians. Whether they would promote sprawl. Whether they will be the worst thing to hit our cities since, well, the car. Whether a car, uber or self-driving or electric, is still just a car. Others are worried about the same thing; Patrick Sissons talked to a few planners for Curbed. Don Elliot, a planner in Denver, tells him:

"I've seen the blood run out of people's faces," he says when talking about the impact of automated vehicles on transportation, land use, and real estate. "For years, planners have been fighting for a 1 or 2 percent change in transportation mode [getting more people to use transit or bike instead of drive]. With this technology, everything goes out the window. It's a nightmare."
Sissons worries that “the convergence of three new technologies—automation, electrification, and shared mobility—has the potential to create a whole new wave of automation-induced sprawl without proper planning and regulation.”
"This will completely change us as a society," says Shannon McDonald, an architect, assistant professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and an expert in future mobility planning. "I think it'll have the same transformational change as the introduction of the automobile."
rome sidewalk

Lloyd Alter/ pedestrian crossing in Rome/CC BY 2.0

Writing from Rome (which is overrun with cars) in the Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine, Eric Reguly does a really concise review of the problems with self driving cars, titled Why self-driving cars will kill cities, not save them.
He questions the prevailing wisdom that most self-driving cars will be shared and that our cities would be decongested, our parking lots turned into parks.

The theory could be dead wrong. The first dubious assumption is that driverless cars will be shared. Car-sharing programs have been around for more than two decades in many cities, yet their market share is minuscule. Many driverless cars might be privately owned, meaning they, too, might sit idle most of the time.
It is also quite possible that families will use their cars more because they are so convenient. In a 2016 report on urban mobility, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and Bloomberg raised the prospect of an urban nightmare: “With lower marginal costs to travel an extra mile in an EV [electric vehicle], and without requiring a driver’s attention thanks to autonomy, the demand for mobility could increase and thus add to congestion. Passenger miles travelled could grow 25% by 2030, with the majority attributable to additional autonomous travel in private vehicles.”

He also thinks that it could kill public transit, and actually affect human health.

Even in the centre of big cities like New York, Toronto, London and Paris, you often have to walk 200 or 300 metres to the nearest metro or bus stop. It’s easier to have a car come to your doorstep. But that would clog secondary streets. It would also make you fatter—various studies have shown that public transportation promotes better health.

He concludes by noting that it could well reverse much of the progress we have made in fixing our cities, making them safer for pedestrians and bikes.
Since the 1970s, mayors and urban planners have been trying to give city centres back to the people. Investments were made in transit and bike lanes, and entire streets were closed to traffic. The advent of driverless cars threatens to upend this progress. Their success could send cities back to the multilane, car-park hell of the 1950s and 1960s.
road kill bill

© Ken Avidor/ Road Kill Bill

A decade ago, PRT or personal rapid transit was what cartoonist Ken Avidor called “a cyberspace techno-dream” that was being used as an excuse to kill transit. Now, self-driving cars are filling this role, it's PRT without the track. Perhaps it is time for planners and urbanists to dig in their heels and recognize that a car is a car is a car, whether it is Uber or self driving or electric, and that making cities better for pedestrians, cyclists and transit is still the better approach.