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Why our cities need smarter transport solutions than just autonomous vehicles

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton November 28, 2022
Urban mobility should focus more on people and less on techno evangelism

Animated image of a driverless car on the street
(Image by Julien Tromeur from Pixabay )

It is often claimed that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will reduce urban traffic and so make our communities safer. But while the trend away from driver-owned and -operated vehicles makes sense for our crowded, polluted cities, there is a logical fallacy in the belief that autonomy will somehow equal emptier, more pedestrian-friendly streets.

As motoring organization the RAC explained at an urban mobility conference in March 2021, the average British car today is stationary 90 percent of the time – not because it is stuck in traffic, but because it is parked. Put simply, most driver-owned cars are little more than depreciating statues for nearly all of their useful lives. 

So, while reducing the number of driver-owned cars may make economic sense, it stands to reason that it offers no guarantee of reducing city-center traffic. In fact, the promised future of app-summoned, autonomous pods that speed you to your destination – regardless of your age, sobriety, or disability – may cause a net increase in city-centre traffic. 

Why? Because those vehicles are likely to be in constant circulation even when empty, rather than rusting in driveways. Indeed, figures presented at the same conference – from a study carried out by transport modelling specialists the PTV Group – suggested the increase in urban traffic from mass adoption of AVs could be as high as 50%. 

That would not be the future that techno evangelists have been promising us – despite AVs’ undoubted benefit in removing the cause of most fatal accidents: human drivers.

And that’s not the only problem with the AV vision of the future. Speaking at the 2021 event, Andrew Pearce, Practice Director for Intelligent & Smart Technology UK & Europe at engineering giant Atkins, claimed that the rise of autonomy at scale would also negate the need for traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, and even streetlights, thus saving cash-strapped authorities hundreds of millions of pounds in driver infrastructure costs.

Perhaps it would. But it’s hard to see how this would benefit pedestrians, cyclists, micro-mobility users, and others who actually live in cities, rather than pass through them in AVs. Arguably, this is a vision of urban centers being designed around the needs of smart machines rather than people. That would be the opposite of the main claimed benefit of driverless transport: making our communities better and safer for humans. 

AVs’ financial impact will also need careful consideration. For example, what would fill the hole in council finances from lost parking charges? According to the RAC Foundation, UK councils received income of £1.7 billion from on- and off-road parking in both 2019 and 2020. In London council Hammersmith & Fulham, for example, parking brought in revenues equal to 46% of those from council tax. Lost income on that scale would mean lost citizen services.

Factor in the potential effects of other urban mobility visions – skies filled with thousands of noisy delivery drones, for example – and it is hard to avoid the impression that residents are largely being ignored by tech innovators when it comes to the quality of life in future cities. 

In that apparently frictionless world, passengers and packages may speed to their destinations 24 hours a day, but would anyone actually want to live in such places – especially when essential per-flight insurance for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would route them over quiet residential areas or parks to keep drone operators’ insurance costs down and their profits up? 

In short, would human beings have even a moment’s peace from roads and skies full of autonomous machines? Shouldn’t those machines exist in a world that is designed for people first and foremost – including the many who may be on foot, cycles, or scooters?

What are we trying to achieve? 

The good news is that the realization appears to be dawning among urban transport planners that some future visions are either based on false premises or are simply abject nonsense when viewed in isolation and at scale. 

Speaking at a Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Policy Forum last Friday on next steps for urban mobility, Martin Tugwell, Chief Executive of regional body Transport for the North, said:

Fundamentally, if we talk now about a place-based approach, we're thinking about what it means to be in a town or city centre. And only then should we think about how we get people to and from there. 

My observation about transport more generally is we're very good at coming up with ideas about this or that being the right solution. I always remember talking to a former Transport Minister, who said that the reason it’s so difficult to pick a winner is because there is no one solution. 

So, what we're talking about isn't ‘what technology do we need’? It’s ‘what are we looking for in our places?’ And ‘what are we looking to create for our users?’ That's where we could then do more to harness the innovators and the entrepreneurs. 

We need to have a different mindset. I often reflect that if a tech company were tasked with getting people to and from services, opportunities, and places, then we wouldn't have the transport system we actually have. 

We've got to free up our thinking about what are we trying to achieve first. Only then we can make some differences.

Christian Bodé, Director of Roads for construction engineering company AECOM added:

It really does raise concerns about what AVs will actually mean. I certainly have concerns about them, that they're not necessarily the panacea that certain groups seem to think they are. 

We really need to consider what the implications of any new mode of transport are, and about how we want our streets to work.

So, one emerging theme from these discussions is that the focus needs to shift away from technology as an end in itself and towards more of a place-based, outcomes approach for citizens. 

The key questions should be: what are we trying to achieve in our communities? For whom? And why? Only when those questions can be answered should tech innovators be brought in to help.

Despite the visions of AV companies, it seems unlikely that autonomous transport alone will take over from today’s oil-guzzling, driver-owned cars. Our future urban transport mix will include electric vehicles of every kind, many of them connected and still driver- or rider-operated on a shared journey towards Net Zero.

Matt Dale is Head of Transport Consulting at strategic outsourcing and energy services company Mitie. He told last week’s conference:

We recognize that switching cars from internal combustion engines to electric isn't going to solve everything. For example, congestion will remain a major problem. The transition to EVs is going to take many years. Even with the band coming in 2030 we will still only be at 11 million electric vehicles [in the UK] by that date. 

Our reliance on the car is obviously too great. We all know that, we accept it, and it's in our hands to do something about it. But one thing we are pleased to see is that businesses aren't just thinking about electric vehicles now as they decarbonize their fleets. They're becoming more mindful, in particular, about Scope Three emissions, which is the commuting and business travel piece [of the puzzle]. 

We're working with a high street bank at the moment to reduce their Scope Three. They are encouraging employees to find different ways to travel and also to understand [the impact of] that journey. They're installing charge points to prepare for electric scooters, so that they can help employees move away from a car park full of internal combustion engine vehicles to a decarbonized carpark of either electric vehicles or bikes and scooters. 

They're also going back to the good old days of car sharing. They are actively encouraging it, and putting the infrastructure in place to support it. They're also very mindful of everybody having access to it. 

Often, you see EV charging stations in locations that are buried away in a dark corner under some trees. But these guys aren't doing that. They're bringing them to the front, they're making sure that disabled people have full access, and that the infrastructure is usable by disabled people.

We're also coming across customers who are looking at rationalizing their buildings and moving back to city centres. 

For example, we're working with one client who is moving from the outskirts to the middle, while reducing the parking that's available to their employees and moving to a location that is public transport friendly. They're encouraging employees to leave their cars at home, or do a short journey with it and then use a park-and-ride solution, or go completely public transport and micro mobility.

Micro mobility is becoming more and more discussed in this arena, driven by a desire to reduce the carbon footprint. This is driving a lot of conversations now.

My take

It’s time to set aside grand visions of an autonomous-only future for personal transport, and start thinking about how human beings actually use cities – to live and work in, not just to pass through them en route somewhere else. 

Transport’s future will be diverse, just like our cities, and not the autonomous monoculture envisaged by some technology evangelists

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