self-driving20car

Ed and Eddie / Flickr

A few of the students in my UBC Urban Transportation Planning class are doing a major project on autonomous vehicles (driverless cars), so it has sparked some thinking on the topic. That’s why I found this post on Planetizen by William Riggs and Michael Boswell intriguing. In the transportation planning world, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are a wild card – we simply don’t know how they will impact the future of urban mobility. At a high level, there are two basic models in thinking about how AVs will change mobility and the cities: 1. radically increased efficiency will allow cities to accommodate increased auto-mobility without infrastructure expansion; and 2. the convenience of AVs (with electric/battery technology) will expand motordom through the constraints of congestion and resource limits, further feeling sprawl and auto-centric urban development. The Planetizen post takes the first model as its starting post and the argument is compelling.

“In this environment of uncertainty, we argue that the only certainty in how autonomous vehicles (AVs) will manifest in cities is uncertainty. While this unclear future might imply no need for a policy response, we believe there is a pragmatic approach to planning for the future of AVs: a temporary moratorium on roadway expansion. Under this moratorium, safety enhancements and regular maintenance would continue, but projects aimed primarily at capacity expansion would stop. This moratorium would include new freeways, interchanges, and major arterials as well as lane additions and intersection widening”

This conservative approach to estimating the future is probably the wisest considering the uncertainty (and the huge costs of expanding auto-centric infrastructure) and calls into question multi-billion dollar boondoggles like the proposed Massey Bridge (as if we needed another reason). But it also highlights the need for some serious policy thinking on the issue. Closer to home, UBC SALA’s AnnaLisa Meyboom (someone I respect) has called for Vancouver to play an agenda-setting role on planning for AVs. Meyboom, the director of UBC’s Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space Lab (what a fantastic initiative), identifies the uncertainty and the need for proactive work to determine whether these technologies will have negative or consequences for social equity and the environment. Notably, Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs has called for City staff to look into this issue and I am looking forward to their report (of course, I think this is a great area for collaboration between the City and UBC – I know that my students would make some amazing contributions).