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Designing for Humans in the Livable Self-Driving City

As autonomous vehicles force us to rethink cities, we should make sure to center them on people

By Robert Young

Shared autonomous electric vehicles are poised to transform the city as we know it. Within the next few years, they could—with the right implementation—begin to reduce crashes and cut carbon emissions. They can also provide cheaper transportation to low-income communities and free up massive amounts of parking space in dense urban areas.

But perhaps most importantly, autonomous vehicles provide an opportunity to reconsider the way we’ve built our cities.

Over the past 60 years, our suburban and urban landscapes have become increasingly centered around cars. The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act pushed freeways deep into cities and brought about the modern phenomenon of vast urban sprawl. The growth of suburbia fueled the 20th century American Dream and aimed to provide new levels of freedom and mobility to all Americans through detached single-family homes, spacious lawns and the private automobile.

But according to many modern observers, sprawl doesn’t achieve its promises of a better life. A research paper published in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics in 2008 reported a direct correlation between longer commutes and lower subjective well-being. While many Americans believe that the larger homes, personal privacy and perceived safety available in the suburbs make up for longer commutes, the data just doesn’t back it up. According to Charles Montgomery in his book Happy Cities, the sprawling suburbs also encourage a sedentary lifestyle, harm our health, limit our social interactions and reduce our civic engagement. And unfortunately for our collective happiness, autonomous vehicles could have the potential to further exacerbate this harmful pattern of urban sprawl by making our commutes less arduous, encouraging even less dense development.

If car-centric sprawl is the poison of modern urbanization, the antidote comes in the form of walker- and biker-friendly communities. Studies have shown major physical and mental health benefits of walking or biking to work over driving. While autonomous vehicles are likely to turn stressful car commutes into additional leisure or productive time, they still can’t provide the day-to-day social interactions, opportunities for civic engagement and health benefits of walking and biking. Given these limitations, how can we use the advantages of autonomous vehicles to maximize our collective happiness, health and sustainability?

The most important step to augmenting the advantages of autonomous vehicles is ensuring that they are also shared and electric. Sharing is a critical component in the question of whether autonomous vehicles will increase or decrease total vehicle miles traveled. This question, in turn, has major implications for urban design: more miles traveled most likely means more sprawl and more cars dominating city streets, while fewer miles traveled means more room for people, parks and public space. Shared car models like Uber Pool, Lyft Line and the Tesla “shared fleet” could mean far fewer cars on the road, and more space for everything else.

Making shared autonomous cars electric is also a clear choice, as electric vehicles will be cheaper than gas vehicles by 2022, are easier for computers to drive, and are simpler to refuel autonomously. The transition to electric vehicles will require investment in urban recharging infrastructure, but can vastly diminish the transportation system’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Back on the urban planning side, one option is to turn some streets car-free. This suggestion may raise eyebrows from autonomous car advocates, but can benefit everyone if autonomous vehicles deliver on promises of packing cars more densely on roads and packing riders more densely in shared cars. As visitors to Copenhagen’s pedestrian downtown Strøget area and New York City’s pedestrian plaza at Times Square can attest, taking the cars out of streets makes them more socially and economically vibrant. In addition, the edges of these areas could become hubs for autonomous vehicle transit, concentrating pick-up and drop-off locations for shared ride services.

In already-dispersed suburbs, the dramatic reduction in need for parking yields the chance to turn former parking oceans into mixed-use developments and town centers. As Galina Tachieva proposes in her Sprawl Repair Manual, the combination of residential, commercial and retail uses in a dense area promotes walking and enhances economic vitality. Autonomous vehicles would still be vital for connecting people to these centers, and by eliminating the need for parking, they allow such developments to flourish. Suburbia could also become denser and more walker- and biker-friendly without the need for private home garages and street parking, if supported by developers and zoning rules.

Public transit can also benefit from an autonomous revamp, reducing costs while improving service to riders. Despite the rise of autonomous vehicles, buses and trains will remain critical elements of cities worldwide due to their higher rider density than any form of shared car. Still, underfunded and undervalued public transit programs clearly need improvement, and some solutions could come from autonomous technology.

These are only a few of the many opportunities to utilize policy, design and engineering to create more livable urban spaces with autonomous vehicles. Without strong planning and policymaking, this technology could also continue to lead us on the same path of the last 60 years of urban development, putting cars first and people second. If the average American decides to buy their own private autonomous car rather than participate in the sharing economy, or live further from their job because they can work during the ride, then their choice will come at a cost to public health and community wellbeing, and policy will be to blame. However, if designed intentionally, the urban revolution that autonomous vehicles promise has the capability of making our cities and suburbs not just more convenient for cars, but also healthier, more sustainable and more livable for everyone.