Here’s why cities need to plan for the arrival of driverless cars

Inevitable stock pic, from somewhere in the Netherlands. Image: Getty.

Trials of autonomous cars and buses have begun on the streets of Australian cities. Communications companies are moving to deploy the lasers, cameras and centimetre-perfect GPS that will enable a vehicle to navigate the streets of any town or city without a driver. The Conversation

Most research and commentary is telling us how the new machines will work, but not how they might shape our cities. The talk is of the benefits of new shared transport economies, but these new technologies will shape our built environment in ways that are not yet fully understood. There’s every chance that, if mismanaged, driverless technologies will entrench the ills of car dependency.

As with Uber and the taxi industry, public sector planners and regulators will be forced to respond to the anger of those displaced by the new products the IT and automobile industries will bring to the market. But can we afford to wait?

Three competing interests

Three distinct groups are giving form to the idea of driverless vehicles. Each has its own corporate proponents and target markets, and its own, often competing, demands on citizens, regulators and planners. Each will make its own demands on our streets and public spaces.

First, the traditional car makers are adding “driverless” features to their existing products. They have no compelling interest in changing the current individual ownership model. Their target consumer is someone who values private vehicle ownership and enjoys driving.

These carmakers’ challenge is to win over drivers sceptical about “their” car doing things they can’t control, whether that is behaving differently in traffic or performing unescorted journeys. But, if successful, these new cars will make driving easier and so encourage more travel and ever-expanding suburbs.

US start-up company nuTonomy launched driverless taxis in Singapore in 2016. Image: EPA/nuTonomy.

Second, cashed-up IT disruptors like Google and Uber see new types of vehicles and new patterns of ownership as the basis for new transport economies. They want lightweight, utilitarian “robo-taxis” owned by a corporation and rented by the trip. Travellers will use phone apps or their next-generation successors to do this. This, in the jargon, is “mobility as a service”.

These companies’ ambition is to carve out a large niche in competition with private cars, taxis, conventional public transport and even non-motorised transport. Fleets of shared vehicles in constant circulation can reduce the number of individually owned cars and, in particular, the need for parking.

In some circumstances, this may support more compact urban forms. But while sustainability or social objectives might be part of the pitch, the profit motive remains dominant.

Third, public transport operators can see opportunities and challenges in driverless technologies. Already, Vancouver reaps the benefits of lower operating costs for its driverless elevated-rail system.

In Vancouver, the train pulls into a station with no driver on board.

Savvy operators understand that new vehicle technology is only valuable if it is integrated with traditional public transport services and with cycling and walking. This means central coordination. Vitally, it also requires control of the information platforms needed to provide multimodal mobility.

Such levels of planning and regulation conflict with Google’s “disruptive” free-market ambitions. European operators, who are in a more powerful position in economic and social life than their Australian counterparts, are already mobilising for this contest.

Whatever the technology, transport needs space

Many claims for the benefits of driverless technologies rely on the complete transformation of the existing vehicle fleet. But the transition will not be smooth or uniform. Autonomous vehicles will face a significant period of mixed operation with traditional vehicles.

Freeways are likely to be the first roads on which the new vehicles will be able to operate. Promoters of these vehicles might join forces with the conventional car lobby to demand extra lanes. This would dash the hopes of many that driverless cars will lead to reduced space for mass movement of cars.

After the freeways, the next objective will be to bring driverless cars, trucks and buses onto city streets. This will require complex systems of sensors and cameras.


The ambition is to allow all users to share road space much more safely than they do today. But, if a driverless vehicle will never hit a jaywalker, what will stop every pedestrian and cyclist from simply using the street as they please? Some analysts are predicting that the new vehicles will be slower than conventional driving, partly because the current balance of fear will be upset.

Already active travellers are struggling to assert their right to the streets of Australian cities. Just imagine how much worse it would be if a dominant autonomous-vehicle fleet operator demanded widespread fencing of roadways to keep bikes and pedestrians out of the way.

The presence of driverless cars cannot alter the fact that space for urban transport is severely constrained. For travel within and between compact urban centres, we will need more and better high-capacity mass transit as well as first-class conditions for walking and cycling.

The integration of conventional public transport networks with shared autonomous vehicles, large and small, offers many opportunities for a much improved service. But that will happen only if this objective is the major focus of investment, innovation, planning and regulation.

Researchers and policymakers need to move rapidly to gain a holistic and systematic understanding of the multiplicity of driverless-vehicle scenarios and the potential harm that some might contain. The technologies are not an unalloyed good, and governments will need to do more than just be “open for business”.

John Stone is senior lecturer in transport planning at the University of Melbourne. Carey Curtis, is professor of city planning & transport at Curtin University. Crystal Legacy is Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University. Jan Scheurer, is senior research fellow at Curtin University.

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

 
 
 
 

“Does the front of the house look nice?” is not a question about good design

The Royal Family look round Poundbury, an experimental traditional new town, built on the outskirts of Dorchester. Image: Getty.

The acronym “BMBH”, as CityMetric readers surely know, stands for the only way to solve the housing crisis: Build More Bloody Houses. But what if it stood instead for something a bit softer: Build More Beautiful Houses, perhaps? Could we make it all – Generation Rent, the soaring homeless population, NIMBYism, even our physical and mental health problems – go away, just by building more beautifully?

That is essentially the argument of Policy Exchange’s new report, Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis. On the face of it, nobody can really object to this idea. “Things should be beautiful” is hard idea to disagree with. As the report puts it, getting pretty Byronic for a think-tank paper on housing supply, “Beauty is a universal value... its existence as a shared aspiration and a guiding light is unchallenged”.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything else about the report is really very easy to disagree with.

The report’s argument is that if we try to build beautiful houses, we’ll be able to build more of them – because people won’t object to beautiful things being built, so development will be easier. And people will then be happier, because there’ll be more beautiful houses to live in and everything will be just lovely for everybody. (“People are overwhelmingly positive about the impact of good design,” the report helpfully tells us. People like things that are good: reports are also coming in that the Pope is a Catholic.)

All of which sounds lovely – and the report is correct to point out that good design and good housing makes people happier and healthier. Living at the whim of landlords because you’ll never own your own home is bad for your mental, and often physical, health. Evicting people from their homes so they can be demolished and replaced with flats that won’t be available to any of the people who use to live in the area is bad for communities.

But does the report tackle any of that? Does it even tackle the more obviously design-related reasons why housing in the UK is in such a miserable state – like the fact it has the lowest space standards of any country in Europe, and that they’re getting lower all the time? No, it does not – instead, it pivots stealthily from “good design” through “beauty” and on into its real goal: “traditional design”. That phrase replaces “beauty” halfway down the report. The authors are clearly hoping you won’t notice these aren’t actually the same thing.

Of course, they have data to show that what people like is traditional housing.  They conducted polls, asking people whether they agreed with such unbiased statements as, “Traditional design is not just about making buildings look better, it’s about improving the quality of life” – a notion with which 75 per cent of people agreed. (I would like to buy drinks for the solid 25 per cent of people who insisted, despite the obviously leading question, that “new buildings should be adventurous and different, even if they shock or offend people”. Are you triggered, traditionalists?)

Best of all is the appendix of focus-group data, detailing how Policy Exchange showed some people a handful of pictures of buildings transparently nabbed from Rightmove, and asked them “Which, in your opinion, has the right ‘look and feel’ for an urban setting/suburbs/rural areas?” The pictures they used, helpfully shown in the appendix, are hilarious: bizarrely, it turns out that people like the look of a nice clear head-on picture of some Georgian townhouses more than they do a blurry, overhead, zoomed-out picture of the Barbican that doesn’t show what the individual living units look like at all.


The results also clearly show that the people surveyed consistently dislike vaguely neo-traditional stuff plonked down as if it’s always been there – but the authors end up calling for that anyway. Sweetly, the report finishes up by remembering to say that, “To be clear, a stronger emphasis on good design need not, and should not, come at the cost of affordable housing.” But it doesn’t say exactly how that would be avoided: in fact, flying the flag for traditional architecture just ends up making it harder to get new things built and further inflates the value of the property people already own.

Nor does the report ever actually address how we could attain good design.  “Does the front of the house look nice?” and “Wouldn’t you like to live in this large house in Chelsea?” are not questions that tell us anything about good design. Good design is actually about liveability inside and out, accessibility, adaptability – all things that architects of all periods can get right or wrong. Yet the authors apparently think – while straight-facedly calling for a greater role for the profession – that the job of an architect is to whack a country-cottage facade on everything in sight.

Who are these authors, you might ask? Why, alongside wonk and occasional CityMetric writer Jack Airey (and after an approving foreword by James Brokenshire, the current housing minister), the other two authors are Sirs Roger Scruton and Robin Wales.

Scruton is the long-standing king brain of intellectual conservatism – a sort of 80s Jordan Peterson (and for many years the New Statesman’s wine critic). He knows nothing about architecture, planning or housing, however: presumably he just has a google alert for the word “traditionalism”.

Wales, meanwhile, is the former Labour mayor of Newham, ousted earlier this year by a local party livid that, among other things, he’d failed to provide any meaningful social housing provision. To be fair, though, he does have a track record of taking an interest in design, having bought several lamps at a cost of over £1,800 each for his new council offices. (The wild cost of such things may have been another reason why his party eventually got sick of him). How charmingly post-partisan to see that a former Labour mayor – of one of the poorest parts of London, no less – can find a new role in life writing reports that Tory ministers are happy to endorse.

Ben Brock lives in London, works in publishing, and yells about buildings on twitter as @cinemashoebox.