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As the Mayor of a community that sits at the geographical centre of Metro Vancouver and is at the forefront of the regions transportation challenges, I am always on the lookout for trends that may affect our transportation system in the future. For the past couple of years, I have been casually reading articles and studies about the advancement of autonomous vehicle technology. Several weeks ago I attended a one day seminar on the topic of Mobility As A Service(MAAS). The seminar focused on how car sharing models, public transit and in the future driverless cars may be integrated into a single mobility service that could radically transform how people get from point A to point B. Inspired by the session I couldn’t help but think that we need to be applying the same energy and intellect that is currently being poured into the development of driverless car technology into also how best to regulate this technology to make our cities better not worse.  Now I would hate to be the “Mayor” who at the turn of the century jumped on the Segway bandwagon as the big solution to transportation problems, but my gut is telling me that autonomous vehicles are going to have a significant impact on our transportation system. Whether this is positive or negative for cities depends on how this technology is integrated into our systems. Although it appears that the technology for driverless cars may be ready in about 5 to 10 years, society’s acceptance of this technology will likely push full integration much beyond this time frame. We have some time to consider the multitude of issue surrounding this technology, but technological advancements have a way of dictating their own timelines.  Below are some of my initial thoughts on the potential positive and negative impacts that autonomous vehicle may have on Metro Vancouver:

 

Taking back space from automobiles

One of the most exciting opportunities that driverless cars present is the chance to take back some of the extensive amount of space we currently dedicate to motor vehicles in our cities. The amount of land that we dedicate for road space and parking stalls in our communities is staggering, but much of this space will likely not be needed to the same extent with driverless cars. A significant portion of our road space is designed for human error, space that can be phased out of our road designs over time. Driverless cars will also navigate our road system more efficiently than human drivers, meaning we will need less road space to transport the same amount of people and goods around the region. Finally driverless cars will not require the same amount of parking that is needed today. Currently each vehicle in our cities requires approximately around 3.5 parking stalls per vehicle. Most vehicles sit idle in the parked position over 95% of the time. This inefficiency will not be required with driverless cars, as cars will likely be spending most of their time in operation and only require a minimal amount of parking. This presents a huge opportunity for cities. In New Westminster, over 25% of our land is dedicated to road and parking use. Imagine how we could transform our city if we were able to take back some of this land and convert it into people oriented spaces.

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Before and after photo from Cheonggyecheon Restoration project in South Korea.

Could the future of driverless cars paralyze the present?

One of my biggest fears about driverless cars is that they will be used as an excuse not to build multi modal sustainable transportation systems today. Although driverless cars have the potential to solve some of the challenges we face in our cities, they are likely not the magic solution to all of the transportation problems cities have. Failing to build walkable communities served by good public transit because of a belief that driverless cars will meet all of our transportation needs in the future would be in my opinion a mistake.  I would hate to see important investments in public transportation not being made as we patiently wait to see what happens with driverless cars.

 

Driverless cars will in theory follow the rules

If I had the ability to issue Motor Vehicle tickets (a power not currently granted to Mayors under the Community Charter) I would likely only need to walk down the block before I spotted some kind of a traffic violation. The reality is that human drivers (myself included) break traffic rules from time to time. We also seem to have knack for crashing into each other. Driverless cars on the other hand will likely be programed to follow the rules of the road to the letter. This will no doubt have some positive safety implications as it is anticipated that motor vehicle collisions and related injuries will be reduced significantly with driverless car technology. We will also have the potential to program community livability into driverless cars. Eliminating rat running and improving traffic calming will become a programing issue not an enforcement matter. Cities could be in a much stronger position to mitigate the negative impacts vehicle transportation has on our neighbourhoods and the task of building safe walkable communities could become much easier.

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Actual photo of the Mayor of New Westminster’s car.

Driverless cars may encourage more driving and less active forms of transportation  

History has consistently shown us that whenever the cost of driving is reduced, the likely result is an increased amount of driving. That intuitively makes sense; if something becomes more affordable and is more efficient, consumers are likely to use more of it. This could have a detrimental effect on cities. As someone who would like to see cities shift from being automobile focused to being more people focused the thought of adding more cars onto our roads and having people driving longer distances is a bit frightening. I can’t help but start thinking that driverless cars may be a stepping stone to the future presented in the Pixar movie Wall E (I have three children and watch a lot of these types of movies). In this movie, humans have abandoned active forms of transportation and have become rather useless creature’s dependent on their individual autonomous travel pods.

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Driverless cars will make life in both the city centre and the outer suburbs more appealing

This will be the double edge sword of driverless cars. On one hand this technology will likely provide new opportunities and vibrancy for urban locations. Cars will take up less space in our urban landscape, freeing up space for more housing options and public space. One the other hand, driverless cars will have the potential to make living in more remote locations more convenient and accessible. This could have the effect of causing more sprawl, as living in the exurbs of our cities could become more attractive. It also illustrates the possible competing objectives we may have for driverless cars. Will we being using this technology to reduce the negative externalities that motor vehicles have on our cities or will this technology enable us to drive more and get from point A to B more quickly and affordably? These objectives may become at odds with one another.

 

Only time will tell how driverless cars will ultimately impact cities. Will this technology reinforce the auto centric focus on cities that have occurred over the past century? Or will this advancement lead to a new way of thinking about cities and enable communities to not have to focus all of their decisions around the automobile. Given the potential revolutionary impact that autonomous vehicles may have, it is probably time for cities to start giving some thought into how this technology can be best managed to meet the needs of building better cities as opposed to just building better cars.

 

 

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