How Can We Prevent Driverless Cars From Making Cities More Car-Dependent?

How Addicts Talk
A less-than-rosy view of autonomous cars from cartoonist Andy Singer.

For better or for worse, autonomous vehicles are likely to become an increasingly common part of the urban landscape. At last Friday’s Transport Chicago conference, a panel of transportation experts discussed the possible upsides of conventional cars being replaced by self-driving ones.

The greatest potential benefit would be getting rid of the most dangerous part of a car, according to the old joke, “the nut behind the wheel.” Assuming they’re designed well, autonomous cars would eliminate some of the safety problems associated with human operators, including speeding, red light running, and other types of moving violations, as well as distracted, drowsy, and drunk driving. This would likely result in a reduction in traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities.

The experts also argued that the new vehicles could potentially diminish the amount of pollution generated by cars, prevent traffic jams, and reduce the need for car parking. This is all true. But according to Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke, the panelists, who were all employees of transportation planning and engineering firms, glossed over some of the potential drawbacks of this new technology.

Active Trans, in partnership with Illinois Tech (formerly the Illinois Institute of Technology) will be hosting its own panel on the topic later this month:

Will Driverless Cars Be Good for Cities?
Monday, June 27
5:30 to 7 p.m.
565 West Adams, Chicago

In addition to Burke himself, panelists will include Jim Barbaresso from the planning firm HNTB, Sharon Feigon from the Shared Use Mobility Center, Ron Henderson from Illinois Tech’s College of Architecture. Tickets are $25.

Burke says the Active Trans panel will look at the possible pros and cons of self-driving cars and explore their potential impact on cities. “We decided to host this event in order to better inform our advocacy work,” Burke said. “We want to ask the questions the mainstream press is generally not asking: Is it possible autonomous cars could undermine biking, walking, and transit, and promote car dependency? Their potential safety benefits are exciting, but could they ultimately lead to more driving, not less?”

Google Self-Driving Car
A Google self-driving car. Handout photo.

Burke added that while driverless vehicles could be a net positive for society, the devil will be in the details. One possible scenario would be autonomous cars chiefly being used as part of the shared economy, for ride-hailing trips, or perhaps as a small-scale form of public transportation. That could make it easier for residents to live without owning a car.

On the other hand, if the typical American model of private car ownership prevails, the result could be more driving, greenhouse emissions, and sprawl. “If you can sleep in your car or use your computer on the way to work, all of the sudden an even longer commute might seem more appealing,” Burke says.

Moreover, if self-driving cars become ubiquitous, that could take a bite out of train and bus ridership, making it harder for transit agencies to provide frequent, convenient service, Burke said. And even if most autonomous vehicles aren’t privately owned, paying for Lyft-type service might be beyond the means of lower-income Chicagoans, which would leave them with fewer transportation options than before, exacerbating transportation equity problems.

Burke says the key for ensuring that the driverless cars does more good than harm will be to get out in front of the trend with appropriate legislation, something that cities have struggled with in the face of new phenomena like ride-sharing and Airbnb. “Are there policies that would maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks?” Burke said. “We’re raising red flags now so that, when the time is right, we’ll be ready.”

  • $25 for the panel? John, please attend and report back to Streetsblog…

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’ll try to make it.

  • One of the big problems with cars in dense urban environments is space; too many big SOV’s roaming the roads, too little space. Gridlock & pollution result (I’m ignoring other serious safety issues). Should driverless cars become a success, I doubt their size and occupancy will significantly change from cars as we know them today (the Google car seems unrealistically small). Part of the fun of driving is being “in charge”; take that away & on top of that be locked into a tiny, tight bubble, who would trade in their SOV? IMHO, the idea that single occupant driverless cars could solve either gridlock or pollution in cities seems deeply flawed and expensive. If the objective is to improve city transit and our living environment dramatically, many cheaper solutions are within reach: Lower speed, encourage full car occupancy, seriously improve public transit, and invest in walkable & bikeable communities.

  • Ironic that one should shell out $25 for this—it underscores the driverless car as an expensive answer to a problem for which we have a variety of much more practical and affordable solutions.

  • Some of the early criticisms of driverless cars seem driven by lack of imagination, a failure to appreciate how different the transportation landscape could be post-transformation. Or perhaps by semantics: when we read the word ‘cars’ we think of the cars familiar today, and not of the array of very different vehicles that could be deployed tomorrow in a shared, electrified, accident-free transportation system. They might not resemble our cars much at all. So will autonomous vehicles undermine bus ridership? Buses will likely be autonomous too, and are likely to remain an important category of the widening array of transportation options that people will have at their disposal. Especially if sharing displaces car ownership. Why would people give up their SOVs? Because when safety is no longer an issue, there’s no reason to drive an oversized vehicle at many multiples the cost of sharing a vehicle that’s properly sized to its task. Shared autonomous vehicles are not more expensive; they’re much, much less expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice to give up the car payment, the insurance cost and the space cost of a vehicle that sits idle 95 percent of the time?

    That having been said, we know less about the impact on active transportation, on walking and bicycling and skateboarding. So it’s great the Active Transportation Alliance is hosting this conversation. We do know that streets will open up when two lanes no longer are sacrificed to parked cars, and we know that driverless cars should be better at seeing and stopping for bicyclists and pedestrians. Streets should be far friendlier.

    But people might walk less. Here’s what former New York Transportation Commissioner Sam Schwartz said about it (and some evidence that the press has been covering these questions:)

    “I think autonomous cars will definitely improve safety,” said Schwartz. “They talk about a 90 percent improvement in safety. Well, I’ve invented something that can give you a 90 percent improvement in safety and do a lot more than autonomous vehicles can do, especially in city centers. I call it the iPed and I brought one.”

    Schwartz took off his shoe and held it in the air.

    “That’s your solution. Walk and solve a lot of the problems that autonomous vehicles would do.”

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’m guessing the event is geared towards transportation professionals who can afford the fee or expense it, and perhaps a portion of the cost benefits Active Trans.

  • More mainstream media covering the issue:

  • Purple Rainman

    Riding a bicycle is healthy exercise and reduces pollution, says author of book, Raise the Flag: Lean Thy Arms, and he knows from experience since the G. Ryan pay them bribes for the political party racketeering and fund raiser extortions and the R. Blagojevich play to pay white collar robberies.