Ten rules for cities about automated vehicles

First let me state that I am a huge fan of Jeff Speck. I’ve read a lot of his work. I’ve seen several of his presentations. And I support his vision for cities and the all important street.

A few months ago Jeff extrapolated his theories of urbanism to autonomous vehicles in an article published in Public Square by the Congress for New Urbanism. As with most of his work, it is a worthwhile, sobering read. It provides an important reminder that autonomous vehicle are NOT an end in and of themselves. Thinking of them as such will only detract and distract us from our civic aspirations. In order for autonomous vehicles to benefit our cities, we will need to bend them to the needs of our cities (instead of the other way around).

That said, I think Jeff’s grasp of cities exceeds his grasp of autonomous vehicles. He misses the mark on some of the risks and opportunities presented by this technology. So I’ve responded to his ten rules below.

1) Be Afraid

This isn’t Jeff’s most helpful suggestion. Fear triggers the amygdala, which is the reptilian, fight or flight part of our brain. What we need most, especially now, is the prefrontal cortex, the most uniquely human part of the brain. Autonomous vehicles present countless complex challenges and we need to apply the lessons we’ve learned from our occasional successes and more numerous failures with cars. We don’t need to start from scratch with autonomous vehicles. The leap from street car to cars was far greater than the leap will be from cars to autonomous cars. Failure is not a guarantee even if it is the path of least resistance. It would be more appropriate to say “Be engaged”. Standing idly by as this technology proliferates is the worst thing we can do.

2) Be Realistic

Jeff suggests major impacts from driverless cars are not on the immediate horizon. I disagree. Even if Ford’s radical vision for the future is decades and decades away, the driverless car is not. Google is already testing its vehicles on public streets with no safety driver behind the wheel. Major change as a result of the driverless car isn’t far off either. If the economics of driverless cars play out as many expect (and as Jeff himself suggests), this change could happen very rapidly. The car itself produced major urban impacts very quickly and the autonomous vehicle is likely to do the same.

I am also very familiar with the heaven and hell scenarios posed by Zipcar found Robin Chase and others. However, Jeff seems to be unaware of some of the factors that could drive us (yes, even Americans) to shared, electric vehicles without any regulation. That isn’t to say we won’t need regulation. We will!! Even in the heaven scenario vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) is likely to jump dramatically. I like Jeff’s suggestion of designing streets the way we want them, but that isn’t enough. We also will need a VMT tax and a congestion fee to effectively manage the risk of increased VMT and all of the collateral damage that comes with it. Yes, people have been trying to do this for years in America with no success. Yes, New York of all places failed. BUT, as electric cars crater the gas tax and transportation funding, a door will open to the VMT tax and congestion fee that has never been open before.

3) Decide how much traffic you want

First, I completely agree that we should design our streets the way we want them. Traffic will respond accordingly. Cities should not be gutted and tied in knots to accommodate more cars or AVs at the expense of everything else. This is very important and we will have to fight vigorously for this as AVs begin to populate our streets.

As I note above, though, that won’t be enough. Elon Musk is not the only person who thinks AVs will increase existing street capacity. A study from Columbia University finds that AVs will increase highway lane capacity by 3.7x. An MIT study found that intersection capacity will double. Similar benefits have been found for local streets. All of this is likely to create an enormous amount of induced demand and exacerbate sprawl, even if we build streets the way we want them. A VMT tax and congestion fee are essential.

However, there is a factor that may help mitigate induced demand if we are “sharing” cars instead of owning them. Primarily, we will experience the costs of driving differently that we do today. The total cost of driving may go down, but the marginal cost of driving may go up. Increasing the marginal cost of driving (even if overall driving costs decrease) would reduce induced demand. If you want to chew on this some more, I discussed this concept in more detail here.

4) Plan for more sprawl pressure

I generally agree with Jeff’s thoughts here, but I think the congestion fee and VMT tax are an essential component to any effective effort to mitigate sprawl. Further, these taxes and fees should be priced such that they cover the costs of our roads. Property taxes and sales taxes should not be used to subsidize roads.

5) Understand transit geometry

I don’t think we can show this image enough. It is an excellent example of how wasteful cars are with space. AV’s likely won’t be as wasteful as today’s cars (because they’ll be smaller) and carpooling will be far more convenient than it has ever been, but AVs will never come close to the space efficiency of bicycles or transit.

Different Mode Streetscape
Source: International Sustainability Institute

6) Don’t rob transit

I agree with Jeff that this is one of the greatest threats posed by AVs. Unless transit agencies adapt by adopting the technology themselves, AVs will become cost competitive with transit and will drive even more riders away from the system. The challenge is that this technology threatens countless thousands of bus driver jobs, many of which are unionized. It has been very difficult for agencies to discuss this technology publicly.

7) Own the streets and own the data

I completely agree. Cities should own the streets and the data that derived from vehicles driving on them. Portland has been a leader in developing policies around the collection of data from connected, autonomous vehicles.

8, 9 & 10) Don’t buy any urban vision that forgets urbansim, unify around a set of policy demands, and invest in the current technological revolution

This is a particularly thorny problem in America. We are particularly quick to toss aside tradition and hard fought wisdom as we chase shiny new innovations. Our cities have suffered as a result. As I mentioned in the beginning, AVs should be thought of as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. They must be bent to serve the needs of our cities. We must remain focused on our respective visions for our cities. The collective emphasis on biking and walking should continue. Efforts to reclaim streets in city centers should continue. Removing barriers to mixed-use development should continue. Support for transit should continue.

But we’ll need to do more as well. Only robust policies will ensure that AVs don’t hurt our cities as much as or more than they help. Building a national coalition to establish and implement these policies will only increase the likelihood of success. LA and Portland have already started charting a path towards the effective adoption of AV technology. We should all join their efforts.

And, yes, AVs will be only one of a host of transportation options available to meet our mobility needs and it should not be at the top of the pile. As I mentioned in the beginning, I am a huge proponent of Jeff Speck’s vision for the city. However, if we are to effectively mitigate the risks and harness the opportunities of autonomous vehicles we must have a clear sense of what those risks and opportunities are. Jeff’s article suggests he doesn’t.




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