NACTO lays out a vision for how autonomous vehicles, and technology more broadly, can work in service of safe, sustainable, equitable, vibrant cities.
Self-driving cars, a subset of what are known as Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), are coming down the road someday, and people are beginning to think about how they will fit in cities. Some suggest fences on every street and gates on every corner; others, like The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) have a different take.
NACTO is just finishing up its convention in Toronto, where they released their vision for an autonomous vehicle policy, Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, and they actually love AVs, particularly when they are buses and trains. Private autonomous cars, not so much. The timing of the report, however, is important because change is coming.
“When the automotive age swept the nation a century ago, cities responded not by adapting cars and trucks to the varied uses of the street, but with a relentless clearcutting of obstacles from curb to curb,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, Principal at Bloomberg Associates and NACTO Chair. “As we anticipate the arrival of self-driving vehicles on city streets today, we have a historic opportunity to correct these mistakes, which starts with a new blueprint for cities.”
The report acknowledges what all the AV fans say, that "AV technologies could offer significant safety gains for people taking transit, walking, biking, rolling, and driving" – if they are good enough and can reliably see, if they are slower than 25 MPH and if "safety, not profit, stays at the fore of decision making." Good luck with that! But they also note that privately owned AVs could have unfortunate consequences, and want to move people, not cars.
If AV technologies focus on private cars and single occupancy vehicles, they will increase congestion and traffic fatalities, exacerbate economic and racial inequalities, and leave us even less equipped to mitigate the impacts of climate change. To avert this dystopian outcome, cities must prioritize the modes that move people efficiently—transit, biking, and walking— by reallocating street space and supporting people-focused street redesigns with smart pricing, curbside management, and data policies.
In one of my favorite drawings, they compare how much space it takes to move people, from walking to bikes to buses to cars, ending up with Uber's hilarious helicopters.
But the drawing that really gets at the heart of the issue is the one below, showing all of the competing interests in urban real estate. We have shown John Massangale's photograph of Lexington Avenue many times, most of the sidewalk and a lot of the architecture, like the stoops, entries and light wells got taken away to make room for cars;
Now the road is going to be given back and shared between people who are walking, who are in wheelchairs, who are sitting down on a bench.
Then we have the bus, freight vehicles, cars and taxi/ride hail vehicles. There is a flex zone for picking people up, markets, bike share, then bike lanes and another wide sidewalk.
It's all going to be a tough fight to get any of this; the Feds and the industry aren't going to like it. NACTO warns:
If federal agencies determine that state or local legal requirements interfere with national regulations, they could employ preemptive authority, in the name of removing “unnecessary” barriers. In “Preparing for the Future of Transportation,” USDOT has already asserted its opposition to “unnecessary or overly prescriptive State requirements that could create unintended barriers for the testing, deployment, and operations of advanced safety technologies.” Cities must coordinate with and monitor congressional and state legislatures to ensure that control over city streets and policies remains at the local level.
That should be fun, given that cities often can't even get red light cameras installed, because freedom.
It is a critical time for cities. NACTO is always at the cutting edge, and this is a brilliant report that is likely to be ignored, even in the city where they just released it. But the time to be thinking about this is now:
“City governments must work rapidly to change how street space is designed and allocated before yesterday’s values become enshrined in tomorrow’s concrete,” said Corinne Kisner, Executive Director of NACTO. “Taking proactive steps now means a future where people come first in an autonomous age. The Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism outlines the policies for a thriving city: steps to improve our streets and cities now and with the technological advances to come.”
And everyone who cares about cities should support those who want to ensure that our streets are for people, not self-driving cars going in circles. This is all a pretty wonderful vision of how our cities could be shared, and work for everyone.