Autonomous Cars Will Turn Back the Clock on Sustainable Cities

Autonomous mobility could become the most important business in the 21st century.

By Diablanco (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Within the next 10 years autonomous cars could reverse the trend to free cities from private vehicles, instead flooding the streets with even more cars, undermining public transit, and leaving no space for other uses.

The companies developing autonomous cars are not interested in getting people to walk more or use public transport, but to offer on-demand private transport for the masses, in many cases moving people back to cars.

During a recent conference about streetcars and public transport, former NYC Traffic Commissioner Samuel Schwartz, a.k.a. Gridlock Sam, author of “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars”, said that the arrival of autonomous cars will increase the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), reverse the millennial trend eschewing driving, decimate public transport, and increase the occurrence of inactivity related illnesses.

In the past few years, many cities have questioned the pattern of dedicating more space to mobility, recognizing that resident’s quality of life is at stake when congestion and pollution are a daily challenge. Improving public transport, especially with sustainable systems such as trams, subways, and electric buses, helps reduce the need to use private vehicles. Improving sidewalks and cycling infrastructure, encouraging people to walk or cycle to work, are also good practices of sustainable transportation and improve residents’ health and satisfaction.

Pollution and traffic congestion are not the only issues. Most cities dedicate the bulk of public space to motorized traffic, especially private cars and motorcycles, while pedestrians are relegated to narrow sidewalks and dealing with congested intersections.

Last year, here at Cities of the Future, we covered the Barcelona Superilles (Superblocks) project. The Catalan capital wants to use the new superblock design to reclaim streets for other uses beside mobility. In order to do that, a significant reduction in the number of cars in the city is necessary, in addition to changing traffic patterns and curbing parking. Barcelona wants to give the streets back to people for such things as playgrounds and open air events.

The advent of autonomous cars, however, could signal a 180-degree change in direction away from those sustainable goals. The companies developing autonomous cars are not interested in getting people to walk more or use public transport, but to offer on-demand private transport for the masses, in many cases moving people back to cars.

Companies such as Uber and Lyft, Google and Intel, plus the bulk of car manufacturers, are investing billions in self-driving technologies, and experts forecast that we’ll have fully commercial autonomous car services operating in a couple of years.

Uber, which has become the most valuable private company in the world, is already partnering with some cities to offer subsidized rides to people going to areas not served by mass transit. Their selling point to cities is that it will be cheaper to offer Uber rides to residents than invest in new bus lines or light rail. While that might be true in the short term, in the long term, as density in those areas increases, they will be left without any form of public transit and wholly dependent on private vehicles. On top of that, congestion will increase and there will be less public space for other uses.

When autonomous cars are a reality, and Uber is heavily invested in the technology, they will be able to reduce fares — they won’t need to pay the “other dude in the car”, as Uber’s CEO argues — and offer those services more efficiently. But they will also kill the desire for better public transport, and wipe out the jobs of current drivers, plus many other jobs in the transportation system.

Uber and others, Schwartz argued, “[…] are strong supporters of [policies such as] congestion pricing, because they are suffering from the congestion that they have caused.”

Obviously, there will always be people who use private cars to move around. On the upside, autonomous cars will bring mobility to people with disabilities, who will be able to have a personal vehicle at their disposal.

The bottom line is how cities choose to embrace this new trend. Autonomous cars are coming, and nothing can stop them. But cities should think hard about the potential impact of having more cars clog the streets, even electric ones. It will mean abandoning sustainability and other benefits that walking, cycling, and public transport bring to residents.

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