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.

 
 
 
 

Why exactly do rail services to the cities of the England’s South West keep getting cut off?

You see the problem? The line through Dawlish. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever looked at some picturesque photos of British railways, perhaps in a specialist railway magazine – we’re not judging – then you’ve probably seen images of the South West Railway sea wall, with trains running tantalisingly close to the sea, either framed by blue skies and blue water or being battered by dramatic waves, depending on the region’s notoriously changeable weather.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and open since the 1840s, the line was placed so close to the water to avoid the ruinous cost of tunnelling through the South Devon hills. From Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth the line is, with the odd interruption, exposed to the sea, affording the striking images so beloved of rail photographers. Its exposed placement also inevitably leads to speed limitations, closure and damage to the infrastructure. This would be a matter of purely local interest were it not for the fact that the sea wall is an unavoidable link in rail routes to the South West.

Main line trains run from London Waterloo and Paddington down to the Devon hub of Exeter St Davids, before continuing on to Plymouth, Truro and other destinations on the peninsula. Trains leaving St Davids reach the bottleneck very quickly, following the river Exe and its estuary, before dipping behind the sand dunes and emerging on to the sea wall.

What happens to the track at the small seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Dawlish therefore has an impact on the whole region. South Devon and Cornwall are inaccessible by rail when the sea wall is temporarily closed or, as happened in January 2014, when storms breached the sea wall altogether, damaging it so severely it took weeks to repair.

While it’s easy to understand the economic logic of building the sea wall in the first place, unsurprisingly the economics of maintaining the damn thing have proven less compelling. The sea wall is considered to be, per mile, the most expensive stretch of Network Rail’s network to maintain. It’s also baffling to modern eyes why the main line rail services for a whole region would flow through such a vulnerable bottle neck.

The Devon rail network. Image: Travel Devon.

As with so many oddities of the British rail system, these perversities emerged from the rapid change that came in the mid 20th century through war, nationalisation and Dr Beeching.

The need for a Dawlish Avoiding Line was identified as early the 1930s. This would have diverted from the existing route at Exminster, and rejoined the line between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, passing through Dawlish inland. Tweaks to the plan were made, but by 1939 construction was under way, only to be suspended when war broke out. Work on the project did not resume after the war, and when the Great Western Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways it was not a priority. The land for the Dawlish Avoiding Line was later sold by British Rail and has subsequently been built on, so that was that.

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching’s axe fell on rail routes across Devon, including the lines through North Devon that had provided an alternative rail route through the county. Those closed lines have also been extensively built on or converted to other uses, leaving a single main line through Devon, and rendering the sea wall unavoidable.


In recent years the condition of the sea wall has become increasingly precarious. That’s not only due to storm damage to the wall itself, but also due to the potential for erosion of cliffs overlooking the rail line, resulting in falling rocks. While this has been an ongoing issue since... well, since the sea wall was opened over 150 years ago, the storm of 4 February 2014 brought the matter to national attention. The visual of twisted rails hanging out into empty space illustrated the problem in a way pages of reports on the precarious nature of the line never could.

An army of Network Rail workers descended on Dawlish to get the line re-opened within two months. But repairing the damage hasn’t resolved the base problem, and climate change increases the likelihood of further major storm damage. In October 2018 the line was hastily closed for weekend repairs when storms resulted in a six foot hole appearing under the tracks near Teignmouth.

Supportive noises of varying intensity and occasional oblique funding commitments have come from government in the last five years, and investigations and consultations have been conducted by both Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force, a group set up by local councils in the wake of February 2014. Proposals currently on the table include Network Rail’s plan to extend a section of the sea wall further out to sea, away from the crumbling cliffs, and reopening the Okehampton line across Dartmoor to provide an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth. 

But in spite of talk about investment and grand plans, no major work is underway or funded, with Network Rail continuing their work maintaining and repairing the existing line, and the situation seems unlikely to change soon.

Massive spending on rail infrastructure in the South West is a hard Westminster sell, especially in the Brexit-addled political climate of the last few years. And with the parliamentary map of the region dominated by blue there’s been little political will to challenge the vague commitments of government. One of the South West’s few Labour MPs, Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, is particularly damning of the failure of Tory MPs to put pressure on the government, using a recent column for Devon Live to describe them as “feeble”.

But regardless of the political will to solve the problems of rail in the South West, barring a string of unusually gentle winters, the issue isn’t going away soon. If the South West is to be an accessible and successful part of the UK, then it needs stable rail infrastructure that can survive whatever the weather throws at it.