Uber's fatal crash shows we should fix our cities, not our cars

uber volvo SUV
CC BY 2.0 Uber Volvo SUV checking out the streets of Toronto/ Lloyd Alter

People are being killed every day and the problem is the design of our streets as much as the cars and drivers.

Regular readers will know that this TreeHugger is a skeptic about self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs), primarily because I continue to wonder who actually benefits from them. Everyone says they will be great for aging boomers who might be stuck in the suburbs, but I then wonder why we don't build better suburbs, so that aging boomers can walk to the store or to the doctor. Others say it will reduce the number of deaths from crashes, but that is also an urban design problem and a car design problem as much as anything else, which is why the death rate from car crashes is so much lower in other countries.

Alissa Walker of Curbed thinks that the recent killing of Elaine Herzberg by an Uber SUV in Phoenix, Arizona, is more of an urban design problem than anything else, given the high rate of crashes and deaths there.

Experts have long attributed the state’s high rate of pedestrian deaths to exceptionally wide streets that are engineered to move cars fast and do not provide adequate safety infrastructure for people who are on foot or bike. The fast movement of cars is what kills pedestrians. Glancing at a phone might cause a person using a street to make a mistake that results in a collision. When a car crashes into a human, speed is what turns that collision into a death.


She is convinced that it is not just the AV that needs fixing.

Before autonomous vehicles can operate on any city’s streets, a city should prove to its residents that it is taking every possible measure to keep them safe—redesigning its streets for people, providing more accessible transit options, and reducing traffic deaths.

More in Curbed.

View down on Futuramatechnology almanac/ Separated streets in Futurama/via

Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institute has a good take on it too, in What Uber’s autonomous vehicle fatality tells us about the future of place. He believes that AVs are coming whether we like it or not, and that we'd better get ready.

The reality is that we’re still in the nascent stages of this new technology and streets are inherently dangerous places. There is no established algorithm for all scenarios. The testing companies don’t share their code, nor is reporting consistent from state-to-state. And we’re just now seeing AVs enter the more chaotic world of cities. It’s one thing to automate driving on a well-striped, high-quality, cars-only road. But machine learning is harder when you add “unpredictable” people, poorly striped lanes, low quality pavement, inclement weather, and other inconsistencies. Algorithms thrive on order—and city streets have less of it.

The future they wantCloser than we think: The future with self-driving cars/via

I have worried that these concerns will lead to further separation of people, to the installation of fences and barriers to prevent walkers or cyclists from being in the street, and in cities perhaps even to mandatory grade separation like they have in Hong Kong. That's what happened a hundred years ago when the drivers and the industry invented jaywalking and pushed people off the streets. Tomer worries that this will happen again too. So many questions:

Take, for example, the Phoenix event. Should future pedestrians have to cross streets in designated places? Do we further separate uses, making AV-permitted streets and pedestrian-only routes? Do we intermingle and make vehicles always stop for pedestrians, everywhere, every time? Do we create new tiers of speed limits for vehicles? And how should pedestrian regulations differ by neighborhood density, especially when comparing central business districts to suburbs?

He is an optimist and sees this as an opportunity to actually fix things, to change policies and road designs, to fix many of the messes of the last hundred years.

The tragedy in Phoenix was ultimately inevitable, as the onset of AV’s groundbreaking technology revolution would lead to an unpredictable tragedy at some point. And while the hope is AV performance will soon point to a safer future, let’s make sure we use this specific tragedy to spark even broader long-term good.

I hope he is right.

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