Transportation is one of the key elements to the growth and prosperity of a successful city. The lack of options creates overlapping problems which become amplified as the city grows, including congestion, pollution, economic inequality, and urban sprawl. Cities that do not have affordable mass transit options will find it economically and logistically challenging to add a program after the city reaches a certain population size, or citizens will find their own solutions (i.e. motorcycles in Ho Chi Min City). When the city is large enough to require mass transit, transportation/land use patterns may already be too entrenched to make a change feasible, or housing density may be too spread out to have any impact.
The best option is to build scalable transportation infrastructure at the early stages of development. This will not only encourage the adoption of mass transit at the outset, but will also allow city planners to strategically align population density along the mass transit routes as the city grows. Additionally, planning a city with the interests of people—as cities had evolved for thousands of years prior to the introduction of the automobile—by adding greenways for pedestrian and bike traffic creates safer and healthier neighborhoods and can also build stronger communities. However there are two main obstacles to this option: the city must have leadership with vision to establish the plan in advance, but more importantly it must have budget approval to build infrastructure that is not currently required. While it is anticipated that up to 75% of the world’s population will live in cities, we have not yet developed a scalable blueprint of the best urban planning options. More telling, a majority of people moving to cities will be living in informal settlements on the margins; they are not normally considered in the context of urban planning or transportation.
Adding mass transit to existing cities may be expensive and ineffective, as we discovered with Atlanta. There may be many obstacles to increasing urban density, as well as redeveloping areas within the city (i.e. brownfields, renovating industrial areas, urban blight) which may vary depending on the city. With those obstacles in mind a cost-effective transit solution has been proposed of using autonomous vehicles (AVs) in place of expensive or unprofitable mass transit infrastructure. They have the potential to cut down on the number of cars required per city (cars on demand), reduce carbon emissions, limit the number of accidents, eliminate the need for large parking lots, and reduce congestion. He also raised some of the likely obstacles that could derail the growth of this emerging industry.
There are two items that I would raise for further discussion. Determining liability, meaning who is responsible for an accident with an AV (which raises ethical, economic, and legal questions), could by itself block the industry from moving forward. However, the biggest obstacle I envision is radical behavioral change. In order for AVs to realize their full benefits, they will need to ramp up very quickly. Drivers will need to allow themselves to give up control and be driven “by robots”. As we have seen in recent discourse, people are uncomfortable giving up their autonomy, privacy, and freedom that car ownership provides. There is an underlying amount of fear, whether or not it is warranted. An informed public continues to smoke, eat fatty sugary foods, and vigorously blocks attempts at gun control despite the multiple hazards. Although the benefits are obvious for people with mobility issues, or who cannot afford their own cars, how will automatic vehicles be marketed to the general public that may not want them?
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