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Autonomous vehicles and 25 year change

Last month Uber announced the trial of autonomous uber rides in Philadelphia. That's right, the company who single handedly disrupted the global taxi industry is now testing out driverless cars on typical city streets. Whilst this is not the first driverless car trial on public roads, it is the first real life application of autonomous cars by a non vehicle manufacturer signalling a change in the landscape.

The tech makes sense but has widely been considered as 25 year change. The feeling of ‘oh yeah, we will have driverless cars on the road one day’ has suddenly moved much closer. The trial has sparked an interest in tech tourism with techno-optimists such as myself flocking to the city to try out the new service. So what does the prospect of an autonomous Uber mean to planners and public policy makers?

Cities across the globe are in a cycle of 25 year planing, reserving road corridors, making land use decisions based on the width of a vehicle and making development decisions based on a minimum number of car parks. This planning and design is based on the idea that the minimum building block for public streets is the ‘B99 typical vehicle’ whilst the pedestrian and cyclist are almost afterthoughts. We then take that minimum unit, multiply it by how many people are expected to use a car to produce ‘demand’, the result is that a typical western city reserves 30% of its land mass for the movement, storage and use of cars.

The shift to autonomous vehicles will significantly reduce demand for roads and car parking, providing new opportunities for the reserves and spaces currently dedicated to cars and trucks. A typical four lane highway will be able to service the same demand with a single lane. Cities will no longer require parking spaces as vehicles will move in an out of the city on demand, highlighting the need to design street and places around people and not vehicles.

More widely there are questions of employment, identity and equitable access to transport tied up in the value and impact private vehicle transport has had on modern western life. We need to continue to question these ideas and adapt the way we build places to reflect this shifting landscape, the driverless car is no longer 25 years away.

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