Autonomous Vehicles Present Opportunities to Change Cities

How we pay for our roads will play a big role in what happens to cities when autonomous vehicles become common place in cities.
March 13, 2018, 10am PDT | Casey Brazeal | @northandclark
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The advent of the car changed cities forever. The Economist now posits planners have a chance to change cities again with the advent of autonomous vehicles. "Urban freeways, commuter suburbs and mandatory parking requirements reshaped cities. Now AVs promise to transform them once again, undermining many car-centric assumptions made in the 20th century, opening up new possibilities and turning urban-planning debates upside down," according to an article in The Economist. But in some ways the arguments are the same. If drivers don't pay directly for the roads, autonomous cars could further spread out our cities.

"A switch to shared robotaxis could increase vehicle occupancy rates, reducing the number of vehicles needed to move people around and easing congestion," according to the article. On the other hand, it posits the potential issue of induced demand that might be created when people see the opportunity presented by newly open roads, something the author calls a "nightmare scenario."

The author suggests that the technology offers an opportunity for a more subtle form of pricing of roads "… taking account of time, place, vehicle type, number of riders, traffic levels and so forth, to maximise sharing and minimise congestion."

The piece takes a guardedly techno-optimistic view of the future, "…In retrospect, many drawbacks associated with cars in the 20th century arose from a failure to price their use properly. With appropriate pricing, AVs should be able to avoid many of those problems, giving urban planners and policymakers a much wider range of choices about how cities and transport systems could be structured." It remains to be seen whether future generations will be able to price their roads in more equitable ways than we did.

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Published on Thursday, March 1, 2018 in The Economist
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