What should cities do now about driverless cars?

I am asked to write and speak about Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) quite a lot, and want to be remembered as one of the early dissenters. The main story, we all know, is that sensors are likely soon to be better than lazy humans at detecting cyclists and pedestrians who step in the trajectory of a car. That would mean low traffic streets could become safer for walking and cycling.

The unforeseen negative consequences of AV will be seen around schools, train stations and shopping districts: areas that attract thicker traffic. If the auto industry has its way, then those high traffic places are where we will see cars moving bumper-to-bumper, like the cars of a train. Effectively, they will be coupled. There will not be any daylight between them. When you think through the scenario, you realise streets are going to be fenced. How else can you deal with a train? Put the road underground like a subway? If the car industry paid their own way, there would be plenty of dough for “car subways”, but they never do so forget it.


The better option is to create exclusion zones around schools, shops and stations, prohibiting any sort of car, even driverless taxis. That seems inconsistent with the ideal of pluralism. However, as I was at pains to explain with my last blog post, pluralism is different to relativism. Pluralism demands that opposing views (for example that of the driver) be reasonable to be accepted. Since it isn’t reasonable to deter walking and cycling in busy places the way AV seems destined to do, the pluralistic thing would be to understand the concerns of the driver and provide reasonable alternatives to them.   Cycling should be allowed in non-motorised zones because cyclists and pedestrians can be observed interacting convivially, even in the shared bike/pedestrian space that has the most bikes in the world, and that is the one behind Amsterdam Centraal. The main opposition to shared bike/pedestrian space comes from the Visually Impaired. Unfortunately for them, the overall public health and mobility benefit of cycling makes it worth while to society more broadly to incentivise cycling by giving it absolute access. What can we offer the blind in return? The olive branch of awareness campaigns that authorities always show us? Let’s not insult them. Rather let’s band with them again a common enemy, the traffic engineers who gave the rest of the city to cars, leaving cyclists and pedestrians with so little space we’re in conflict.

The other thing you can have in vehicular exclusion zones around schools, shops and train stations, are on-demand buses, like Helsinki’s. It’s likely in the future these will be driverless, to save the cost of employing individual drivers.   In addition to a policy on vehicular exclusion zones, we need one concerning arterial roads. These will become more of a barrier between neighbouring pedestrian zones if AV creates capacity-induced-demand for more driving. It’s tempting to say we should bury them with “big digs”. There are two problems with that. One I mentioned before, that the car industry won’t foot the bill. The other is that tunnels will further entrench our dependence on cars rather than making the shift toward cycling and trains. The ideal would be to leave cyclists and motorists on the same plane, but to give cyclists the right of way where they cross paths. That exact tactic has worked very well to deter people from driving in Holland. Note how much more a standard Dutch roundabout does to hinder car traffic than that ridiculous Hovenring everyone thinks is for bike.


Would you like a summary of all that to put in your policy recommendations?   Summary

To guard against future influxes of driverless cars, coupled so they look like the cars of a train, [Insert city name] needs to start marking vehicular exclusion zones near schools, shops, train stations, and other places that attract thicker traffic. Establishing car-free centres now will preserve the rights and comforts of pedestrians going into the future, and give people an extra incentive to cycle and therefore stay healthy. The welcome aspect of Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology is it will lower the cost of on-demand mini van services that will help disinvest the population of privately owned cars.   Feel welcome to leave feedback on this one. Is there something you think I have missed?


  1. crank says:

    This sums it up very well. And I *will* use your summary.

    One typo – should be “note” in the following: “Not how much more a standard…”

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