One of Google's self-driving cars

Last month Volvo announced it was trialling driverless cars in London. It follows other trials being conducted in cities across the world, including our own Adelaide. Based on these trials it seems quite likely, even inevitable, that driverless cars will be common place in a decade’s time.

There is much hype about driverless cars and how they might change the face of our cities. To their enthusiasts, driverless cars will usher in a new urban nirvana. They’ll be safer, eliminating up to 90 per cent of all automobile accidents, saving millions of lives. They’ll provide transport to the elderly, disabled and kids; improving mobility for millions. They’ll dramatically increase road capacity and traffic flow. They’ll free our cities and towns of the need for parking. They’ll be cleaner and greener. Perhaps they’ll even free us from even owning a car at all, with cheap driverless taxis and car share vehicles providing our mobility.

But there is also the possibility driverless cars will not live up to their boosters claims. That cities will become clogged and congested as more vehicles join the road. That we’ll use our vehicles to run simple deliveries. That our kids will get off their bikes and be driven, driverless, to school. That more people will have access to cars and we’ll be using them more frequently and drive further. Far from ending traffic, we make it worse. That we won’t make our cities more liveable and connected, but more fragmented and sprawling.

Which of these different outcomes eventuates will come down to our own decisions and those of policy makers. If driverless cars are inevitable we should be thinking now about how we are going to manage their impact.

I am aware of little thinking going on by the NSW Government about how Sydney might manage this massive new challenge. My fear is not of autonomous vehicles but of driverless cars in rudderless cities – where bad city development and sprawl are reinforced by this new transport mode.

Using history as a guide

Fortunately we have been here before and history can provide us with a guide to what we should do. Because three generations ago our civic leaders had to deal with a similar challenge and how they handled it can provide us with guide on what to do, and what not to do.

In the 1930s and ’40s it became increasingly apparent that a private car would soon be sitting in front of every Sydney home. That the age of the automobile was upon us and we needed new policies and actions to manage this change. That we needed to rethink how we organised our cities. Sydney’s civic leaders responded with policies seeking to support and promote car use.

Priorities were moved from public transport to building more roads, starting with the Harbour Bridge but soon spreading to freeways and bridges, which criss-crossed Sydney.

Planning laws were liberated allowing the population to sprawl. The goal was garden suburbs, on quarter acre blocks, linked together by roads. We could finally empty out our crowded inner cities – and did.

As demand for the private vehicle continued to exceed expectations, more drastic measure were undertaken. The largest tram network in the world was ripped up to make room for more cars on our roads. Historic buildings where bulldozed to make car parks. More and more freeways were built and clearways implemented.

However, we were never able to build enough road capacity to take us to where we wanted to go. Every freeway and clearway we created just allowed more and more cars on the road. Every remedy for congestion only encouraged more congestion; a thing we now know as induced demand. The cars took over.

The result was a low density, sprawling city, exactly as we planned it to be, but somehow not how we wanted it. This car-based city didn’t live up to our expectations. It was polluted, not as productive, and socially and spatially divided.

In recent years many have worked hard to undo this. Some policies have been rethought and investments re-prioritised. Government is again building public transport and tram tracks are returning to city streets, though new freeways are still being constructed as though this was 1966 not 2016.

Still, many councils together with the NSW Department of Planning and the Greater Sydney Commission are seeking to reinvigorate Sydney’s town centres and focus new higher density residential development in and around them. Infill, which favours public transport, is being favoured over sprawl, which is caused by road-building. Despite the best efforts of Roads and Maritime Services, Sydney is slowly pulling itself back together, ending the social and spatial divide, and becoming less polluted and more productive.

The power to reinforce or undo

Driverless cars can either reinforce this trend or undo it. If driverless cars improve the efficiency of our road network it is very likely that they will induce more demand for road space, increasing congestion. If they generate more frequent road trips our local neighbourhoods and streets could grind to a halt. If they allow for longer, albeit more comfortable commutes, we will sprawl again, threatening our environment and increasing social isolation and exclusion.

Alternatively, driverless cars could free our cities from congestion and even car-ownership at all. Most cars are used less than six per cent of the time and much of this use is just looking for a place to park. Driverless cars could allow us to develop “on demand” vehicles, which turn up when we want one and then leave to either park themselves or to pick up someone else. Used more efficiently, the number of cars on our roads could be reduced by half. Moreover, not owning a car means we don’t have to dedicate so much of our house, or streets, to providing parking.

It all comes down to the transport and planning policies we choose to support. We need to ensure an approach to driverless cars that is not focused on the individual customer of transport services but on the best outcomes for the city. The policy for driverless cars must not be tech-determined but city driven, and it must fit in with the overall integration of land use and transport strategy for Sydney being designed by the Greater Sydney Commission. If we want a less sprawled city we need to craft our regulatory approach to driverless cars to fit that objective. Transport modes don’t just carry people; they shape cities. Our approach to driverless cars must first be based on what kind of city we wish to create.

For individuals or for shared use?

Another key aspect of this key new urban debate seldom heard is whether driverless cars are for individuals or meant to be shared. Indeed, why are we calling them driverless cars rather than autonomous vehicles? This is partly because the innovation comes out of a US context with its individualism and cities with poor public transport networks with the presumption being that however it is driven, the car – usually unshared , with one person commuting in it – is the main people carrier. Is that the presumption we wish to make in Australian cities?

A recent report by McKinsey suggests that if your city is already a sprawling city with low density drivable suburbs then driverless cars for individuals making long commutes to their job centres could become the norm. That is to say that though in principle autonomous vehicles could complement the public transport network by connecting commuters to it in the “last kilometre” between homes and station, in practice once in the AV you may stay in it for all the journey to work. That is a worrying thought for Sydney and one that should galvanise us to seek an alternative destiny.

The good news is that in certain parts of Sydney – the higher density City of Sydney area for example – we have already seen a significant shift to car-sharing, with more residents taking up options like GoGet than in cities such as Boston or San Francisco. Our aim should be to ensure the integration of this emerging mode with our wider mass transit system. Rather than “autonomous cars”, our optimum city-shaping approach should be to promote ride-sharing driverless vehicles as part of a mass transit system.

There are many unforeseen implications arising from driverless cars, and while we should watch the trials being conducted around the world we must encourage trials here so that they are designed for a very unique context and designed to fit the overall strategic spatial plan for Sydney being created by the Greater Sydney Commission.

RMS shouldn’t lead those trials as the place of driverless cars in the Sydney of the future is simply too important to be left to a ministry whose raison d’être is to promote a mode rather than integrate land use and transport or promote a higher-density city.

The mistakes our forebears made when the first cars were introduced should prompt us to think and plan better. The costly mistakes of yesteryear are now placing a heavy financial burden on government as they retrospectively attempt to provide Sydney with the public transport we so urgently need – and a burden on Sydneysiders left in congested corridors in a dispersed city where jobs and homes are now so far apart. In introducing autonomous vehicles we must not reproduce or simply update those mistakes.

Tim Williams is chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.

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  1. If nothing else changes car sharing will increase congestion because of the extra travel required to get the car from one customer to another. It is the other changes that might make a bigger difference. Think using advances in communication technology to reduce the number of commutes per week and break the connect between where people live and where they work. Think to about using something that is more like a safe, weather proof motor bike for driver only commutes – something that can carry one or two people while being narrow enough to drive two abreast on a single traffic lane and short enough to angle park in much the same space required by a motor bike. Think too of the effect of spreading the working week over 7 days and splitting this workforce so that only half the workforce goes to work on any one day? Autonomous cars will be good for people like me who face not being able to drive not all that many years down the track but we should be looking to more radical change to improve the way we live.