Léonard Dupond behance
Illustration: Léonard Dupond

The autonomous future is coming at us at full speed and poses a potential threat to daily life in our cities and suburbs not seen since the invention of the automobile.

In the much-discussed talk of our idealised autonomous future, all city residents will have equal access to fast, efficient and reliable transport to whisk them to their destinations at the touch of a button.

This is all true. Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology has the potential to efficiently provide transport on a scale that individual human beings in private cars simply are not capable of achieving. It could result in reduced congestion on our road, less demand for parking facilities and significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. It seems to be the solution to all of our problems.

However, this is all predicated on one single concept – that autonomous cars will be shared. There is, of course, no guarantee they will be.

More likely, if we stay on the present course, the autonomous future we face is one of continued private car ownership. In that scenario, many of the potential benefits of this new technology will fail to materialise. Privately owned self-driving cars will increase congestion, parking and sprawl, as people opt to spend productive time by themselves in their own vehicles rather than sit on public transport. The private AV doesn’t solve our current transportation problems; it just creates bigger ones.

On the economic front, there is a reason car manufacturers became larger and wealthier than taxi companies. In a shared vehicle world, manufacturers risk losing the sale of an incredibly value product that can be sold one at a time to every house on a block. In fact, many manufacturers still maintain that they will continue to sell privately owned self-driving cars in addition to any shared autonomous offerings. That’s because car ownership is ingrained in Western culture and is increasingly important in developing nations. We love our cars. We’re addicted to our cars because they are, overall, incredibly convenient and we have become deeply attached to the idea of owning them. Car ownership is embedded in our identity. If anything, that is the more intractable issue. We love our cars and we define our reality through and by them. Getting us to give them up will not be easy.

Those of us working in the current shared mobility field know all too well that it has been a long process to even get to the point we’re at today where many people do share vehicles and have given up ownership.

The role of urban planning

So what can be done to avoid a future overrun with self-driving cars? The most effective solution is to build an urban ecosystem and market that encourages shared mobility and in fact moves it from a secondary option to the default.

We need urban planners to get back into the business of good city planning. They are the ones with the greatest potential to affect the role of shared mobility on the communities of the future.

Consider the impact of these influencers: France owes its boulevards – replicated in cities around the world – to Napoleon’s interior minister Georges Eugene Haussmann; and just over 100 years ago American architect Daniel Burnham co-authored the first comprehensive plan for the controlled growth of Chicago, cementing in a blueprint development that forms the basis for its vibrant downtown and famously beautiful lakefront border.

Both cities’ public transportation systems, although not without fault, were built on the foundations of those plans and are lauded. In contrast, Detroit, birthplace of the American automobile, struggles to deal with the sprawl and woeful lack of public transportation that are the hallmarks of an urban plan shaped by the economic interests of the automobile industry.

Around the world, the 20th century dominance of the automobile has given rise to the car-centric design and layout of today’s cities. Urban planners would do well to turn that model on its head and consider examples where shared mobility works. Car-sharing and bike-sharing have both risen in popularity in more densely populated inner cities, with a variety of transport options. Communities of the future will have to look more like these sorts of areas to avoid a flood of privately owned self-driving cars.

Here are five key points urban planners should consider:

1. Ample public transport

Nothing will ever move a greater number of people the greatest distance as efficiently as public transport. We must have quality trunk routes of public transport, which shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) can feed residents living too far away to walk or cycle to.

2. Higher density

At its most basic, density equates to customers, without which shared mobility fails. There must be enough of a market to ensure that an economically viable number of residents, workers or even tourists are present within an area who will utilise what it likely to be a variety of different SAV services.

3. Liveability and walkability

We must permit neighbourhoods to once again become places where the services, shops and destinations we need on a daily basis are within close walking distance. We must break the behavioural conditioning so many people have that to “do anything” requires a trip in a car.

4. Rationed Parking

We must break our addiction to parking lots. By limiting parking, residents may find that a shared transport mode is more preferable than the hassle of finding a parking spot.

5. Policies supporting and integrating shared mobility

Alluded to above, one of the greatest hurdles to overcome is the seemingly intractable cultural norm of driving a private car. I believe strongly that one of the best opportunities to combat this is to build a culture of sharing today. The evidence of this success is clear in Sydney, where a car-share policy has allowed over 20 per cent of the local residents (and growing) to join a car-share organisation. Ideally these shared mobility customers of today will become the early adopters of SAVs in the future.

These five components are topics urbanists have been advocating for years. The impending arrival of autonomous vehicles, however, gives a greater urgency to the conversation.

Planners need to be aware that they play perhaps the single greatest role in shaping the cities that will in turn shape the role autonomous vehicles play in our lives. They are the ones who can save us from replicating the mistakes of the 1950s with the technology of the 21st century.

Joshua Brydges is GoGet Carshare’s transport planner and is actively involved in the Smart Cities movement.

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  1. Computer nerds who imagine a future where our vehicles are run by computers do not understand the reality of driving and the human brain. The human brain of a driver is or should be, constantly making value judgments about the immediate environment. It has the ability to scan every thing front, back, and side – the child with a ball, the flash of an eye ahead in the dark indicating a kangaroo or wombat, the confused elderly driver, the uncertain inexperienced driver, the bike ahead, the BDouble needing to veer into the right lane etc. We already have two deaths from driverless cars that I know of. There is also the problem of failing cyber security. Nothing on the internet is safe from hacking including Government agencies.

  2. Reality check: Autonomous shared cars mean empty cars travelling around between customers and parking spaces. So assuming the same trips still need to be made congestion and total car km will increase.
    Then there is the problem of no taxi driver. No taxi driver means that if someone chucks up during a trip the next customer may face a super grotty car. None of this means that a local car share co-operative may make sense but, as the article notes, this does not need autonomous cars.
    Less hype and more thought is required.