It’s the hot topic at the National Association of City Transportation Officials conference in Chicago at the moment, which has produced a special guide
Urban planners talk about two visions of the future city: heaven and hell. Hell, in case it’s not clear, is bad—cities built for technologies, big companies, and vehicles instead of the humans who actually live in them. And hell, in some ways, is here. Today’s US cities are dominated by highways there were built by razing residential neighborhoods. Few sidewalks and fewer bike lanes. It’s all managed by public policies that incentivize commuting in your car. Alone. Trapped in traffic.
This special hell we’ve created for ourselves has tech companies and visionaries proposing heavenly ideals for our earthly woes. Uber and Alphabet want to unleash fleets of unmanned flying cars and drones upon the world. Elon Musk wants to tunnel beneath cities and build fast-moving hyperloops. And then there’s the dizzying spiderweb of companies racing to build autonomous vehicles to unshackle our ankles from the gas pedal.
But if humans no longer have to spend time piloting vehicles through traffic, what happens to cities? And what if autonomous vehicles actually make things worse? Yes, traveling will be easier, but that means everyone—even those without drivers licenses—will be able to do it. Maybe Americans will live farther apart, extending their commutes—no harm done when you can catch up with your shows instead of drive, right? The result could be a lot more trips and a lot more traffic. It would seem the old adage is true: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Which means cities need to start thinking now about how to incorporate AVs into future planning. To that end, on Monday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an international, 60-city organization of very serious transportation planners and engineers, published its own vision of the Promised Land, a 50-page blueprint outlining how to account for our autonomous future and build in flexible options that could result in less traffic for everyone, not just those riding on four wheels.
“We don’t just need new software running on our streets—we need to update the hardware of the streets themselves,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation head in New York City during the Bloomberg administration who now serves on the board for NACTO. “That’s why we need a new roadmap that puts humans first.”
Urbanists must be engaging and debating issues related to automated vehicles and the impact they will have on cities now. No one knows for sure what the impacts will be or how to best respond, but if voices for priorizing a humane city are not heard, the decisions will be made by and for those who will profit most from maximizing technology over community.