Bring ‘em on? Planning for the Robo-cars

Now is the time for planners to engage in the public debate on vehicle-automation – leaving it to the car-makers and search-engine providers (and their legions of techies) won’t deliver the livability outcomes planners aim to achieve.

3 minute read

June 21, 2013, 4:14 AM PDT

By Scott Le Vine @

Planners have had a – shall we say – rocky relationship with the automobile.  The passionate love affair of the parkway-building heyday is a distant memory.  Interstate Highways are here to stay, for better or worse (perhaps with tinkering at the margins).  In the early 21st century we’ve settled into a loveless marriage: Planners recognize the car isn’t going away any time soon (a debatable proposition, in point of fact), but it is tolerated rather than embraced.  The prevailing view in the profession today is that driving is a necessary evil, to be minimized in favor of active travel and public transportation.

The ground is shifting beneath our feet, however.  Breakthroughs in sensing, processing and control technologies have brought vehicle-automation out of the realm of science fiction.  (True, the taco-copter still isn’t delivering just yet).  As many of you will know, state legislatures are beginning to regulate automated cars (the lobbyists are swarming), but the leading legal thinking is that if it ain’t explicitly prohibited – and in general it ain’t – then it’s (probably) a legal activity.

With the major technical barriers to automated-operation now addressed, the remaining challenges are still difficult, but more prosaic:

  • reliably delivering increasing levels of automation,
  • scaling-up from prototypes to the mass market,
  • identifying the appropriate role of the public and private sectors in the regulatory / legal / institutional /  insurance framework,
  • developing viable business cases (e.g. for alternative forms of vehicle-ownership),
  • managing deployment in mixed-traffic (and mixed-road-user) environments,
  • quantifying (and planning for) the implications on land use, energy consumption, and wider lifestyles,
  • and so forth.

The year’s ‘main event’ is the 2nd Annual Road Vehicle Automation Conference (, organized by the Transportation Research Board and taking place at Stanford University’s Law School from July 16th to 19th, 2013. 

Now is the time for planners to engage – leaving this to the car-makers and search-engine providers (and their legions of techies) won’t deliver the livability outcomes planners aim to achieve.  Events on-the-ground will pass us by if we ignore this trend, to the profession’s detriment. 

A sampling of impacts planners need to be thinking about: how does parking provision (and its enforcement by municipalities) change? What are the (likely countervailing) pressures for further sprawl versus more compact land use patterns? How could sleeker street design improve pedestrian connectivity? What are the realities of how people will make use of the new capabilities offered by automation – and the implications for the public realm?  And what does increasingly-intelligent and connected transportation mean for the quality-of-life of cognitively or physically disabled people?

I’m keenly looking forward to the conference’s agenda, which includes deep-dive workshops on – among a range of topics – Shared-Mobility and Transit, Energy and Environmental Impacts, and Cyber-security and System Resiliency (hacking?).  Beyond the scientific content will be the unique opportunity to demo an automated vehicle.

I hope you’re able to join us in Palo Alto, and if you will be attending please get in touch: slevine (at)

Scott Le Vine, AICP is a research associate in transport systems at Imperial College London.  He is currently preparing a Think Piece on Vehicle-Automation for the Independent Transport Commission.

Scott Le Vine

Scott Le Vine, AICP is an Assistant Professor (Urban Planning) at the State University of New York (New Paltz), a Research Associate at Imperial College London, and a Visiting Professor at Southwest Jiaotong University (Chengdu, China).

Aerial view of snowy single-family homes in suburban Long Island, New York

New York Governor Advances Housing Plan Amid Stiff Suburban Opposition

Governor Kathy Hochul’s ambitious proposal to create more housing has once again run into a brick wall of opposition in New York’s enormous suburbs, especially on Long Island. This year, however, the wall may have some cracks.

March 20, 2023 - Mark H. McNulty

Empty parking garage at night with yellow lines marking spots and fluorescent lighting

Rethinking the Role of Parking in the American City

In cities big and small, the tide is turning against sprawling parking lots, car-centric development, and minimum parking mandates.

March 16, 2023 - The New York Times

A futuristic version of New York City, with plants growing neatly on top of modern skycrapers.

Friday Eye Candy: 20 AI-Generated Cityscapes

AI-generated images are creating new landscapes and cityscapes, capable of inspiring awe or fear.

March 17, 2023 - Chris Steins via Medium

A group of wetsuit-clad swimmers gathers to talk in shallow water near the shore of the San Francisco Bay.

Proposed Pool Would Make an Olympic-Sized Play Area in the San Francisco Bay

The San Francisco Bay is usually an undesirable place to swim, except for a hearty few. A development proposal seeking assistance at the state level would add a pool to the Bay’s waters to make the idea of going for a swim more appealing.

March 24 - The Mercury News

Chicago elevated train over busy city street surrounded by high-rise buildings

Chicagoland Transit Agencies Call for State Funding as Budget Shortfall Looms

Illinois transit agencies want to see changes to a law requiring them to collect half of their revenue from transit fares, arguing that low ridership and staffing shortages will lead to a massive budget gap without intervention.

March 24 - Crain's Chicago Business

Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge

Panel: Minneapolis Zoning Updates Should Reflect Mixed-Use Future

A discussion of post-pandemic changes in work and commuting concluded that the city’s overhaul of its zoning code should be less restrictive with land uses.

March 24 - MinnPost

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

HUD’s 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.