How self-driving cars might improve our cities and towns

city view
© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

There are a lot of different opinions about the future of our cities in the era of the autonomous car; some think it might be lead to a congestion disaster and a massive expansion of sprawl.

However the optimistic consensus is that the autonomous car will likely be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them. Rachel Skinner of WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff and Nigel Bidwell of Farrells, both UK consultancies, are in the Optimistic camp, with a capital O. They have prepared a fascinating study, Making Better Places: Autonomous vehicles and future opportunities.

Driverless and autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be transformational. With the right planning, they offer the potential for a better quality of life, economic growth, improved health and broader social connections, by offering convenient and affordable mobility to all of us, regardless of where we live, our age or ability to drive.

city center© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

It is a lovely vision; as the transformed street shown above demonstrates, there is no longer any need for traffic lights or signs, since the car knows what is allowed where; there is no permanent parking; there are not even any lanes. Pedestrians are crossing everywhere because the car knows to avoid them.

As a counterpoint, there are those who think that the opposite will happen, that “we might see a small number of people taking advantage of that to cross through traffic, knowing the cars can't kill him. That will slow the cars down, and their drivers will start lobbying for even greater restrictions on pedestrians, like fences preventing midblock crossings.”

suburbs© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

Their vision for the suburbs is lovely, with parking pads torn up for grass, garages filled in with living spaces, on-street parking eliminated.

If a shared use solution for AVs was available to a suburban community, offering appropriately sized vehicles within minutes, supplied from local hubs, and with significantly lower costs than running a car year-round, then interest and demand would grow fast.

Highway vision© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

But their vision of the transformation of highways is the most dramatic. Far fewer lanes will be needed because they will be reversible according to demand; lane markings, signs, all other roadside clutter will be eliminated. Because the separation between vehicles will be much less, they estimate that “with driverless capability in place, a dedicated motorway or strategic route could deliver as much as 3.7 times its current capacity.” I suppose even billboards will be superfluous; they can just broadcast ads onto your windshield.

Town Square© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

The effect on small towns and the countryside will also be positive, as young and old people alike will be able to get around more easily.

While some rural centres and roads have access to a bus service, frequencies and route choices are often limited and very few routes are commercially viable without subsidy. Many rural centres have no service at all, and have no prospect of any form of provision in future. Shared AVs, scaled to match levels of demand and available on-demand, could significantly enhance the services now offered by rural buses. Offering a ‘from-the-door’ service to rural residents, AVs would eliminate service gaps as well as walk and wait times.

Of course, this is also the vision of many politicians today who don’t like spending money on transit, who say “We can’t solve future or even today’s problems using technology of the past”.

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

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