Autonomous vehicles that serve society

The case for an integrated approach to autonomous vehicles in London

Recently Westminster Council blocked the mayor’s Oxford Street pedestrianisation plan and Cycle Superhighway 11. This may just seem like a tale of two axed active transport projects, but it has broader implications for urban mobility, especially the future of urban mobility, including autonomous vehicles.

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Traffic congestion along Oxford Street. Source:

Westminster Council has not won itself many favours lately with the mayor of London, cycling campaigners, and environmentalists. On the heels of blocking the mayor’s Oxford Street pedestrianisation plan, the council made a last-minute legal bid to block CS11, a new cycle route from Swiss Cottage in northwest London to the West End. Both are deeply political issues: Sadiq Khan campaigned on pedestrianising Oxford Street as part of a broader initiative to make London streets healthier, cleaner, safer, and more sustainable. Meanwhile, CS11 was conceived under Boris Johnson’s mayorship as part of London’s “cycling revolution,” a legacy that Khan pledged to build on. The council scrapped Oxford Street plans, alleging that local residents overwhelmingly opposed it, and is attempting to axe CS11 on similar grounds.

According to a source from the mayor’s office, “‘There is an urgent need for safer cycle routes into central London and there is an equally strong case for pedestrianising Oxford Street. The idea that Westminster Council think they can hold the rest of London to ransom is totally unacceptable.’” Oxford Street is the busiest shopping street in Europe with notoriously high levels of air pollution and pedestrian injuries/fatalities. Last November, Transport for London (TfL) announced its plans to make Oxford Street a car-free by the end of this year (2018). These plans were not perfect, as they proposed banning cyclists, but they were a step forward in tackling air pollution, congestion, and pedestrian injuries/fatalities. Meanwhile, TfL was supposed to begin constructing CS11 this summer after it gained 60% public support in the consultation.

The London Cycling Campaign and Living Streets released a statement condemning the council for allowing car-centric attitudes and NIMBYism to impede much-needed street improvements that would increase the safety of vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists, children, the elderly, people with disabilities) and improve the city’s air quality. This may seem like it is just about pedestrianising streets and building more cycle superhighways, but it paints a broader picture of the contested nature of mobility in London with implications for future mobilities. What can we abstract from this?

The contested and political nature of urban mobility

For starters, urban mobility is highly political, shaped by the fragmented nature of governance in London. Westminster Council could veto Sadiq Khan’s plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street because the council — not TfL and not the mayor — controls Oxford Street. The boroughs control most of the roads in London: While just 5% of London’s roads are centrally managed by TfL, the remaining 95% are under the purview of the 32 London boroughs and the City of London. The boroughs each differ in financial resources, infrastructure provisioning, political leadership and priorities, and residents’ attitudes towards walking, cycling, public transit, and driving.

This also explains why cycling through different boroughs in London can be a disjointed experience with stark variations in the availability and quality of cycling infrastructure. No matter how much the mayor and TfL push for a holistic cycling network in London, ultimately it’s up to the boroughs to step up and deliver that. Likewise, no matter how much the mayor and TfL argue that pedestrianising Oxford Street would yield citywide benefits for all Londoners, if Westminster disagrees then it simply will not happen.

Looking ahead, if autonomous vehicles are to be rolled out citywide in London, we can expect similar tensions to arise due to politics and borough boundaries. Boroughs may not all agree with each other or the mayor on where, when, and how to deploy autonomous vehicles. A strategic London-wide framework for autonomous vehicles would be a good first step. But as we have seen from London’s approach to cycling infrastructure, that alone would not be enough. Coordinated efforts among the boroughs would be needed.

Autonomous vehicles in cities?

How feasible is the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles in London, especially given the prioritisation of the mayor’s Healthy Streets Approach? Sadiq Khan wants 80% of journeys in London to be made by foot, cycle, or public transport in 2041. To achieve that, he developed the Healthy Streets Approach as a strategic policy framework to decrease car usage in London while increasing walking, cycling and public transport usage. To support the Healthy Streets Approach, Khan pledged to invest £169m annually for cycling schemes over the next five years (compared to what the previous Tory mayoralty pledged, £91m per year), appointed Will Norman as the first full-time Walking & Cycling Commissioner, and called for parking space reductions in new developments in the Draft London Plan to dis-incentivise car ownership.

This may increase polarisation between the automotive sector and active transport advocates, but there is an increasing recognition from the private sector, particularly in the automotive industry, that we all have a stake in urban mobility, whether it’s motorised or non-motorised. Uber’s recent acquisition of electric bikeshare company Jump and Lyft’s even more recent acquisition of Motivate, which is responsible for eight bikeshare programmes in the US, show that it “ain’t just about cars anymore.” In a similar vein, Ford and Gehl also recently formed a partnership.

It may seem puzzling that ride-share giants, like Uber and Lyft, are diving into bikeshare and that a colossal car company and an urban design firm renowned for its people-first approach are now collaborators. What this indicates, though, is that the future of urban mobility concerns us all and all road users with varying perspectives must weigh in. What’s more, disruptive technological innovations present an opportunity to reimagine and potentially even overhaul our cities’ transport systems. But to do so, our approach to urban mobility and transport governance must be more holistic and integrated, not piecemeal.

This is especially important considering that the UK central government’s post-Brexit industrial strategy is to prioritise technology, particularly artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, to keep the country competitive and at the forefront of innovation. The government has committed significant investment in autonomous vehicle research and development to get driverless cars on the roads by 2021. But how prepared are UK cities for autonomous vehicles and how exactly will autonomous vehicles fit in cities?

If London’s response to prior ‘smart mobility’ disruptions, like Uber and dockless bikeshare, sets any precedent, the capital city does not respond well to urban mobility. In September 2017, TfL revoked Uber’s license to operate in London (which the company appealed); meanwhile, shortly after dockless bikes hit some London streets in summer 2017, some local councils confiscated them, arguing that they were causing too much of a public nuisance since they littered pavements and obstructed public space. Ofo and Mobike, two large dockless bikeshare companies, are currently requesting a more coherent operating framework and a London-wide permit to simplify the existing haphazard, patchwork regulation.

Governing autonomous vehicles?

London, TfL, and the boroughs were blindsided by Uber and dockless bikeshare; clearly, bans and confiscation are not effective long-term strategies and solutions. So, what is the way forward? There is still debate about when autonomous vehicles will be rolled out, but a critical lesson from London’s response to Uber and dockless bikeshare is that innovation requires governance. Cities have to plan ahead for potential disruptions instead of waiting to see how it goes and winging it. Crucially, London and city authorities have a narrow window of time to steer the direction of autonomous vehicles in cities to ensure that they help make cities more liveable.

Cities have been in a losing battle with the automotive industry for what seems like eternity, and the failure of cities to act now to proactively plan for autonomous vehicles risks urban futures that are not dissimilar from the early 20th century, in which car-centric development prevailed and “jaywalking” became an offence. Autonomous vehicles could exacerbate urban sprawl, increase traffic congestion and air pollution, adversely impact public health outcomes by encouraging people to be more sedentary, and perpetuate car-centric design and planning at the expense of human-centred public space. These are the very problems that cities are trying to solve and the last thing we need is something that makes them seem even more intractable.

On the other hand, benefits of widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles in urban areas include increased mobility for more vulnerable groups (i.e., the elderly, children, people with disabilities, sick people), a potential solution for transportation’s first/last-mile problem and an effective way to fill other transportation gaps, climate change mitigation, decreased traffic congestion, and parking space reductions that free up space for a more enhanced public realm. Realising these benefits hinges on political will and forward-thinking leadership. Cities cannot afford to be asleep at the wheel and just go along for the ride.

The way cities approach and plan for autonomous vehicles has to be integrated with wider urban governance and transport planning, as well as consideration of broader economic, environmental, and social issues. Autonomous vehicles will have broad-reaching implications for all of society, which means this cannot remain the purview of the automotive and tech industries. If autonomous vehicles are to serve diverse, pluralistic urban populations, then we need all hands on deck to create liveable, smart, inclusive cities with technological innovations that serve the public good.

This piece was written by Tiffany Lam, Public Policy Strategist at Humanising Autonomy. We develop natural interactions between people and autonomous vehicles. 👋🤖🚗

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