driverless cars Australia

The advent of driverless cars presents a golden opportunity to wrest city shaping away from cars and back to planners, according to the University of Sydney’s Professor Robyn Dowling.

Dowling was one of the speakers at last week’s Co-Lab conference, an initiative by Landcom and UrbanGrowth NSW Development Corporation showcasing the latest collaborative research projects in the planning space.

Professor Robyn Dowling at Co-Lab

Dowling and her team have just published a new report on how UrbanGrowth’s Bays Precinct in inner Sydney could be the perfect testing ground for incorporating driverless cars into our cities.

The Bays, the researchers believe, provides an ideal test site for designing for driverless cars, as it will be developed over the next 20-30 years, during a time where it is widely expected that driverless car technology will transform the transport system in the most profound way since the automobile.

“The timeframe for fully autonomous vehicles … is about the same timeframe as the rollout of the Bays. They’re on parallel development trajectories,” Dowling says.

“So the question is, what do we need to do in the Bays now – or what do we need to do as a masterplanner – to plan for a future on a 20-30-year time horizon?

“Autonomous vehicles are an opportunity for us to sit back and say, ‘Well maybe we can do our transport differently.’”

Moving away from private ownership

Crucial to success will be discouraging a “private autonomy” scenario, where the majority of cars will be owned individually, replicating the existing system, rather than moving to a more efficient and sustainable “transport as a service” model.

Dowling believes that without strong involvement from governments and planners, a private autonomy model is the most likely outcome, which will deepen car dependency and the array of negative consequences this entails – poor health outcomes, urban sprawl and congestion.

“If we let those really pushing autonomous vehicles across the world really decide what’s going to happen, we are more likely to end up with that private autonomy – everyone having their own car and more congestion,” she says.

“If we’re going to have shared transit and development that prioritises public benefit, we really need strong government involvement. And we need that because there are many stated social benefits of autonomous vehicles – those who can’t drive legally at the moment being able to access cars as a form of mobility; and the safety benefits are quite substantial.

“So if we are going to ensure those widespread benefits then we can’t just let the market decide.”

Planners can script the space for people, not cars

Dowling believes demonstration projects like the Bays could help flip the script on how cities are shaped.

“There is an opportunity for planners because we have the opportunity to script the spaces [where autonomous vehicles travel]. We can really shape that in a way we didn’t when the automobile first came on the scene. We let it control the city.

“This is our chance for the city to control the car rather than the other way around.”

There are a range of strategies that can be implemented to incentivise shared transit. However the report, Implications of Connected and Automated Vehicles for Bays Precinct Planning, says urban design, infrastructure and planning responses to driverless cars are still in their infancies, and both transport plans and planners are largely “unaware” of the issues.

Dowling has some suggestions for interventions.

“We know there are some cities that are trying to go car free, for example, or have car-free precincts. We might want to think about banning the private car from various parts of our precincts, restrictions on parking, surge parking charges.”

The design of the precinct could also include a reduction in road space; less parking spaces on the street and in buildings; designing multi-modal and smart transport infrastructure; and adaptable buildings designed to interface better with driverless technologies, including drone delivery.

In terms of building design, the paper says it is critical the principles of “adaptive design” are implemented now, such as the ability for building car parks to be repurposed if they are made redundant by transport as a service.

“There are some sites in the US saying, how might we open [basement car parks] up to sunlight – because parking might be alright if you’ve got no sun but it’s not particularly good for other uses. What are the slopes? What are the ceiling heights?

“In the long-term, it’s about thinking about how we design streets more friendly for pedestrians or how do we design buildings that do not have basement parking.”

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  1. I think it’s exciting that new models of transportation are being explored and alternatives to car dependency investigated.

    True, autonomous vehicles with a high ownership factor would be sub-optimal, but this is a ‘service’ platform that builds on the very successful Uber transport disruption – which has been a huge boon for those who can’t justify the cost not the parking inconvenience of private vehicle ownership in urban environments. Plus, linked to electrical power (sustainability generated) then I think both existing car centric planning paradigms and environmental concerns can be addressed. And Frank, are not private cars sitting in business car parks another form of special clogging?

  2. as I heard the other day – if we move to driverless cars, that may allow empty uber type cars to circulate in waiting – causing congestion from driverless cars !

    a little like our new ‘wonderful’ share bicycles – unused ones already clogging our streets and blocking my footpath – something to look forward to ?