What will self-driving cars mean for cyclists?

A cyclist passes a Google self-driving car at Mountain View, California, back in 2012. Image: Getty.

Last week, I joined thousands of other Brits in hopping on my bike to make the most of the uncharacteristically warm weather. But just as I was remembering all of the things I love about cycling, I was rudely reminded of one of its major problems.

It’s a scene that doesn’t need much setting because it happens far too often. I was pedaling down a typical London street, one lane of traffic moving in each direction. An engine revs behind me – an impatient driver looking to fill the two car-lengths between my bike and the vehicle in front. Overtaking will do no good here, and besides, there are cars coming in the opposite direction. It would be an unsafe maneuver.

The revving gets louder, and suddenly I feel the car whisk past my shoulder with millimetres to spare, squeezing between me and the oncoming traffic. It’s so close I’m destabilised and narrowly avoid a crash. All too aware of London cyclists’ bad reputation for shouting profanities at drivers, I keep my anger to myself. But an unexpected thought springs to mind: I can’t wait for self-driving cars.

My reaction was perhaps well-founded. In 2016, 102 cyclists were killed and a further 3,397 seriously injured on Britain’s roads. Whilst riding a bike remains safe by statistical standards – with only one death per 30m miles cycled on Britain’s roads, and the general health benefits far outweighing the relative risk – every cyclist has a story of a hairy experience.

Proponents of self-driving cars promise they will reduce that epidemic to close to nil. Through the combined functions of automatic braking, hazard detection, avoidance of driver fatigue and the elimination of blind spots, the technology does seem promising.

However a recent spate of deaths in the U.S. casts doubt on my rosy assumption that autonomous vehicles will solve cyclists’ problems once and for all. On the night of 18 March, an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman wheeling a bicycle across a road in Arizona. Five days later, a Tesla car on autopilot mode crashed in California, killing its driver.

It is clear that autonomy, in its current form, is far from perfect. Vehicles’ detection systems are developing fast but are still primitive, and in cases where cars offer partial autonomy in the form of steering assists and cruise control, the risk is that drivers can lose concentration. What’s more, when autonomous vehicles have to operate on the same roads as unpredictable road users – like cyclists and pedestrians – they face a far trickier job.


Though autonomous cars may be on Britain’s roads as early as 2019, it will be many years before every vehicle is automated. “The transition is going to be really messy,” Roger Geffen, the policy director of the advocacy group Cycling UK, tells me. “Before autonomous cars can really share the streets with pedestrians and cyclists, they’ve got to not just detect their presence but predict their movements. Cyclists negotiate space with drivers by a combination of eye contact and hand signals. How are driverless cars going to understand that?”

Until technologists can find an answer to that question, Geffen’s fear is that pedestrians and cyclists will be demonised for their unpredictability, possibly even facing the prospect of being banned from certain roads. And even if technologists could design an algorithm that can detect cyclists and pedestrians in every instance, autonomous vehicles still raise unanswered questions about cyclists’ place on the roads.

Looking to the future, there are two possible extremes. One is utopian: the lack of need for a driver will mean a small fleet of driverless cars working around the clock could replace the thousands of cars lying idle on our streets, freeing up space for cycle infrastructure and pavements.

But that scenario is not inevitable. “The nightmare future,” Geffen explains, “is one where the manufacturers are determined to recoup their investment by trying to make sure everybody’s got a self-driving car. We’ll end up with complete gridlock and the technology never getting to the point where it’s able to detect the presence of pedestrians and cyclists.”

Driverless cars offer great promises, and it seems fair to assume they will eventually lead to a reduction in road fatalities. But it would be foolish to expect that to come soon, and we may see an increase before numbers start to fall. It is likely cyclists and pedestrians will have to fight for their right to remain unpredictable, and possibly learn new behaviours to interact with self-driving vehicles.

One thing, however, is certain. The roads are going to change.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.