When the first automobiles appeared on city streets at the beginning of the twentieth century, they were something of a curiosity among the pedestrians, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages and electric trolleys. But within just a few decades, roadway design and urban form had been almost completely transformed to accommodate the new “horseless carriages.” The car had radically changed the way we inhabit and design our cities and regions, for better and for worse — a reminder that an incremental evolution in mobility technology can have a profound impact on built form and how we live in cities for generations to come.
Today, we are on the threshold of a similar transformational change in the way we move and live in urban areas. The advent of self-driving vehicles and other disruptors are now underway, ushering in one of the biggest changes to cities that we will see in our lifetime. Given that the infrastructure projects we are planning, designing and building today will be around for the next 50 to 100 years, it is critical that we consider how these disruptive technologies will impact urban design.
When will we begin to see self-driving vehicles on our city streets? The short answer is that we are starting to see them today. All of the largest automobile and technology companies are collectively spending billions of dollars to perfect and pioneer this technology on urban roadways, with prototype vehicles currently being tested in many cities. Projections suggest that self-driving cars may entirely displace our current human-driven fleet within the next three or four decades — well within the time horizon of the infrastructure projects and transportation plans being developed today.
The impact of self-driving vehicles will be amplified by other technologically-driven changes that we are already experiencing within the transportation industry. Mobile phones, apps and the vast communication network that supports their use are making mobility an increasingly on-demand service. This access to networked mobility options is in turn making it more convenient and affordable for many people to access mobility services on an as-needed basis instead of through ownership. This is seen most clearly in the emergence and growing use of car sharing, bike sharing, and ride hailing services in many cities. We have also seen an accelerated shift towards cleaner forms of mobility, with a focus on electrification and active modes of transport. Many countries are now planning to phase out the internal combustion engine over the next 20 years.
How will these changes interact with cities and the way we get around in the future? Proactive planning, engineering and design will be essential to ensuring the most beneficial outcomes for cities. The most impactful design opportunities will come from a relatively simple, people-first approach: focusing on how we move people, not just vehicles; finding ways to create social space instead of storing cars; giving people choice and promoting healthy lifestyles; and prioritizing modes that result in a cleaner and more sustainable environment.
- Reduced parking requirements
The average car today sits unused 95 per cent of the time, demanding an enormous amount of urban space to store vehicles that sit idle. With a shift to increasingly shared and autonomous forms of mobility, the amount of parking required will decrease dramatically, creating an opportunity to recapture current parking space for other more valuable uses. By limiting the amount of parking we are building today, and utilizing existing parking space more efficiently, it is possible to dedicate more urban space for housing, public space and recreational opportunities.
- Reimagining roadways
City streets serve a broad range of functions, with the vast majority dedicated to moving single-occupancy automobiles. If street space is reallocated to instead support the most efficient transportation modes available, streets can be reprogrammed to carry more people per hour while using less overall space. This shift reprioritizes the focus to moving people instead of simply vehicles. Many existing laneways or underutilized streets, for example, could be re-imagined as green corridors, linear parks, and corridors for active transportation modes.
- Reinforcing public transportation
Public transit plays an essential role in freeing up roadway capacity, providing mobility options and reducing the environmental impacts of transportation. With a shift to automated mobility, the provision of high-quality and high-capacity transit will only become more important. Transit and active transportation modes will continue to be able to move a far greater number of people in a more space efficient manner than individual vehicles, be they human operated or automated or shared. Shared, self-driving vehicles could also be used to augment transit by providing a critical solution to the “first and last mile” problem —efficiently shuttling commuters between transit hubs and their destinations.
We are at an exciting moment in the history of transportation and urbanism. The opportunities, and risks, for building livable future cities are transformational. But the possibilities highlighted here are by no means a foregone conclusion. It will take city builders in all areas of expertise working together and focusing on key principles to realize the best solutions. Perhaps our great-grandchildren will look back in 100 years and reflect on how decisions made today contributed to making our future cities safer, healthier, happier, and more sustainable places in which to live.
Aaron Knorr is a senior architect and urban designer at Perkins+Will in Vancouver. Contact him at [email protected]