Driverless cars are here – but the roads aren’t ready for them

A driverless car being piloted in San Francisco. Image: Getty.

The recent deaths of a woman struck by a car Uber was testing in driverless mode, and of a man whose Tesla Model X crashed when his hands were off the steering wheel because he was letting the car do some of the driving, may shift the debate over autonomous vehicles.

Those tragic fatalities are raising overdue questions about whether people and places will be ready when this new technology moves from beta-testing to a full-throttled rollout.

As an urban planner who has analysed how technology affects cities, I believe that driverless vehicles will change everything that moves and the stationary landscape too. Until now, the public and governments at all levels have paid too little attention to how letting these machines drive themselves will transform urban, rural and suburban communities.

The Tesla Model S electric car that crashed into a fire engine in Culver City, California, in January 2018. Image: KCBS-TV via AP.

Critical juncture

Driverless vehicles are closer than you may realise to moving out of testing mode. General Motors, for instance, plans to start producing ride sharing models as soon as 2019.

But public awareness and consumer acceptance will take far longer, perhaps decades. It will depend on the machines’ safety record, plus the time it takes to implement legal and political changes like enacting local laws governing the use of self-driving cars.

This shift requires everyone from automakers to consumers, insurers to planners and officials at all levels of government, to work together. Being proactive about guiding this technological change is essential. Rather than waiting until it happens or leaving it for the last minute, now is the time for education, thoughtful discussion and planning.

This juncture resembles what happened when automobiles replaced horses and the internet gained traction. In those cases, the technology changed how people lived, worked and got around. And the transformation occurred before the public or governments were ready.

When the internet first became popular in the 1990s, few people – if anyone – predicted the social and behavioral changes in store.

Likewise, the advent of motorised transportation more than a century ago completely changed cities, towns and suburbs. Replacing horses with the internal combustion engine demanded wider, better roadways and the invention and proliferation of traffic lights, gas stations, automotive dealerships, public parking lots and private garages. Governments had to regulate who could drive and which vehicles were roadworthy.

Driverless transportation, likewise, will demand new infrastructure and laws as it changes commuting and travel patterns in ways that few communities are contemplating today. Depending on what happens, the results could be positive or negative.

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan delved into the angst and anger Americans felt toward early automotives in the documentary ‘Horatio’s Drive.’

Picture this

Ideally, self-driving vehicles will make it easier for people who can’t drive for any reason. These vehicles also promise more relaxed and productive commuting and excursions for everyone else.

Additionally, they could make the roads safer. Almost 6,000 American pedestrians and more than 37,000 drivers and passengers die in car crashes every year. Despite the two recent fatalities tied to autonomous driving, it’s likely that this number would be lower without people in the driver’s seat.

If these contraptions stoke ride-sharing growth, traffic may subside and pollution may decline. The amount of space occupied by roads and parking could shrink.

More homes and businesses will make do with smaller garages or none at all. Entrance ramps and other prime real estate hogs will be repurposed. Pollution will probably decline if in all likelihood most autonomous electric vehicles run on electricity, rather than gasoline or diesel and they draw a rising share of power from wind and solar energy.

Just think about what your community might be like. Picture wider sidewalks, new cycling and jogging lanes, and additional green space. It’s no wonder that urban planners are already pondering the possibilities.


Unanticipated consequences

Yet this technology might have serious downsides.

What if autonomous vehicles were to drive about empty, rather than parking? That would increase congestion rather than abate it. Public transit use could decline once commuters have the freedom to do whatever they wish aboard their vehicles. If they become more tolerant of longer trips to work, driverless cars could potentially increase sprawl.

The truth is, no one knows what to expect. While engineers have been developing the technology for decades, social scientists, politicians and government officials have only recently started to grapple with its repercussions. And public opinion and engagement is further behind.

The ConversationLeaving everything up to market forces and consumer whims could possibly create more problems than autonomous vehicles would solve. That’s why I believe in taking the planning side of the transition to driverless vehicles off autopilot.

Mark Wilson, Professor and Program Director, Urban & Regional Planning, School of Planning, Design and Construction, Michigan State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.