The future (mobility) that urbanists want

At the Future of Transportation World Conference in Cologne a few weeks ago, the founder of the conference, Tony Robinson called for replacing the “outdated” HS2 rail project with the world’s first autonomous car and truck superhighway. His exact words were:

“Creating a superhighway for autonomous vehicles [AVs] would be a far more efficient and cost-effective solution compared with building an outdated rail network…people would embrace an autonomous superhighway as opposed to [HS2] a project that, by the time it’s finished in 2032, will be hopelessly outdated.”

Earlier we tweeted that this is not the future that urbanists want. We firmly believe that autonomous vehicles have a place alongside, not in lieu of, public transit and walking/bicycling infrastructure. To work in and for cities, we need a human-centric approach to AVs. This means prioritising people first, not cars — whether there is a human driving them or they are self-driving.

Let’s talk about induced demand

More AVs could lead to more car trips and more miles driven, which would continue to drive up emissions and energy consumption. This is what transport wonks call induced demand, a concept that seems remarkably amiss in policy-level AV debates and discussions. We need to watch out for induced demand because transport currently accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK alone.

Simply put, adding more lanes and building more highways makes driving seem like the easier, more obvious option, which makes more people drive. Therefore, instead of solving congestion and reducing emissions, roadway and highway expansion worsens it.

Wider lanes + more highways → Driving seems more attractive → More cars on the road, more traffic congestion.
Rollout of AVs (higher-tec, safer, faster, and more efficient vehicles) + AV highway → AV travel seems more attractive → More cars on the road, more traffic congestion.
Image source: NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism

The US-based National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) cautions against expanding roadways and highways, as it would just further privilege vehicular traffic at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists, and public space. The new World Economic Forum (WEF) report Reshaping Urban Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles: Lessons from the City of Boston echoes this, urging cities that AVs alone will not unlock congestion. Cities must also upgrade road infrastructure (for cyclists and pedestrians, not just vehicles!) and invest in public transport, which AVs must complement and not supplant.

Replacing HS2 with the world’s first superhighway for autonomous cars and freight, therefore, is not viable if we want liveable cities and AVs that serve society. Not too long ago, Susan Crawford wrote in Wired that AVs could drive cities to financial ruin. In the US, gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, traffic tickets, and parking revenue account for 15–50% of transportation revenue in cities. The advent of AVs would likely lead to the loss of a key source of city revenue. To avoid this dystopian scenario, the WEF report emphasises that local governments must implement the right policies and incentives to steer AVs in a positive direction that benefits cities.

Most recently, yesterday’s National Infrastructure Assessment by the UK National Infrastructure Commission urges cities to step up to the plate because:

For all their benefits, neither electric nor connected and autonomous vehicles will solve the problems of urban transport; rather they are likely to increase the number of drivers on the roads. Government and cities need to act now to ensure that space in cities is used effectively, with room allocated for fast, frequent public transport systems, well-connected and affordable housing, and pleasant public spaces.

A people-centric vision for AVs

A people-centric vision for AVs will require political will and robust leadership. Fortunately, there is reason for hope! Right now, local officials in the US state of Massachusetts are in a unique position in pioneering a new regulatory regime that encourages AV research, testing, and development while empowering cities to have a say and lead in these decisions. As Joseph Curtatone, the Mayor of Somerville, said: “If we plan our cities for people, that’s who will benefit. But if we plan our communities for the automobile, we’re going to be a car-centric society for a lot longer than we should be and the impacts will be negative over the long haul.”

Other encouraging examples of how AVs have been deployed in environmental, efficient, and cost-effective ways to strengthen public transit and improve urban mobility include:

Helsinki, Finland:

Helsinki, Finland was one of the first cities to experiment with electric autonomous mini-buses to help address transportation’s first/last-mile problem (getting people to/from a transportation hub to their starting/final destination). This RobobusLine launched scheduled service on regular routes in the city’s Kivikko district as of May.

Gothenburg, Sweden:

Beginning a few weeks ago, Volvo demonstrated an electric autonomous bus in Gothenburg, Sweden. The bus is 12 metres long, which is one of the first examples of automating mass public transit. In the coming months, Volvo will continue experimenting with and developing electric autonomous buses to enable environmentally beneficial, economical, and energy-efficient public transit.

Schaffhausen, Switzerland:

The small Swiss town of Schaffhausen has integrated an electric autonomous mini-bus, the “Trapizio,” in the public transit system since March. Not only is the Trapizio intended to help address the first/last mile problem, it also aims to strengthen public transit by exploring and enabling new routes.

Detroit, United States:

Stateside, Detroit became the first US city to deploy independent electric autonomous mini-buses in an urban core, thanks to a startup called May Mobility. May Mobility envisions that these autonomous mini-buses will fill the first-/last- mile transportation gap and be integrated with the city’s public transit services. The company’s business model is unique in that it offers a fully-managed transit service by providing the vehicles, maintenance, site operations crew, and human driver in front.

Austin, United States:

Also in the US, Austin will soon launch the biggest electric autonomous bus pilot in the country. In an exciting and successful public-private partnership, the City of Austin, Capital Metro (Central Texas’ transportation agency), and RATP Dev USA are collaborating to deploy a pilot electric and autonomous mini-bus circulator in the downtown area.

South Australia:

Coming soon to South Australia are trials of EasyMile EZ10 electric autonomous buses that can carry up to 15 passengers, along with an autonomous vehicle hub, to help address first-/last- mile problems.

These scenarios, in which AVs could benefit cities and people who live in them, is more like the future that urbanists want.


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

Get in touch with us at hello@humanisingautonomy.com 📩