Why the future of active transportation depends heavily on automated vehicles

In 2018, if you really want more walkable, bikeable cities, then you need to engage in the conversation about automated vehicles (AVs).

Like it or not, AVs are coming (in one Phoenix suburb, they’ve already arrived). And at the risk of sounding a little dramatic, walking and cycling will never quite be the same once they’ve arrived. If you’re a bit skeptical about this, recall what happened last time we had a transformative transportation technology hit the streets: at the beginning of the 20th century, cycling was riding a decades long wave of popularity, replete with advocacy groups and a push to build networks of dedicated infrastructure. Fast forward a few years to 1908, however, and Model T’s start running off the Ford assembly line in Detroit, and we all know what happened from there.

Today, we are in the proverbial 1907. The next transformative technology is imminent. But this time, it doesn’t necessarily spell doom for active transportation. In fact, AVs could usher in a new golden age of walking and cycling. Several trends support this outcome:

  • Improved safety: one of the big reasons people are deterred from walking or cycling is that they’re concerned for their safety. And you can’t hold it against them — from distraction to aggression to fatigue to alcohol, humans are lousy drivers. AVs, while they won’t be perfect, will do better than your average human. Consider for instance, what a human can see at any given time relative to what an AV can sense at any given time. If injuries and fatalities are significantly reduced, this would remove a major walking / cycling impediment for a lot of people.
Left: what a human can see at any given moment in time. Right: what an AV can sense at any given time. Credit: Jason Neudorf
  • Greater choice: the single greatest predictor of an individual’s travel behaviour is whether or not they own a vehicle. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: if you own a car, every time you use it you’re getting more of a benefit out of your investment. And who doesn’t want that? That’s one of the big reasons why it’s so hard to get car owners to regularly walk, ride or take transit. AVs will shake up this dynamic by offering people comparable convenience to car ownership at a lower cost. And with fewer people owning cars, you can bet more people will be taking an open mind to the idea of walking and cycling.
  • More space: with vehicles travelling closer to each other, smarter signals, more ride sharing, and a steep decline in the need for ubiquitous parking, it’s possible that the auto demand for road space could ease up a little. And where there’s high demand for walking and cycling, that space could be repurposed for wider sidewalks and more protected bike lanes.
  • Better public realm: even if AVs don’t change the look of streets by reallocating space, they’ll still change the feel of them. Broadly speaking, the companies that are at the head of the AV race are also driving the shift toward electric vehicles (EVs). Together the automation and the electrification of vehicles will lead to dramatically better air quality and much less noise pollution, all of which makes for a much more enjoyable pedestrian and cyclist experience.
  • Greater accessibility: with any luck, AVs will make most of our lives a little more pleasant, affordable, and convenient. But for those with a visual impairment, AVs have the power to be life-changing. Connected vehicle technology will open up the possibility for apps that enable safe crossings. This could work both passively, where a user’s mobile device indicates that it’s safe to cross the street, or actively where the device broadcasts a signal instructing vehicles to yield. The elderly and anyone who needs more time to cross than what our current signals allow could also benefit from this. High definition street mapping will open up a world of potential apps to help guide those with visual impairments down the street. And these benefits are dwarfed by the gains in mobility and independence that the AVs themselves will bring to those with visual impairments.

The first piece of good news is that there’s a lot of potential for AVs to support active transportation. But this is no time to sit back and wait for some blissful utopia to arrive.

Absent forward thinking policy, and left to the devices of corporations with an interest in selling more cars, things could look quite differently.

Think mass congestion caused by an explosion in the number of vehicles — half of them with no occupants — that circle about running menial errands for their masters. Pedestrians and cyclists, seen as erratic road users and a menace to the efficiency of the AV network, are pushed further to the sidelines as pressure mounts to undo all the progress of recent years.

History is instructive. It could happen again.

There is another piece of good news though, which I’ll expore in Part 2 of this article. The rules of the new mobility game have not yet been established. Business models are not yet entrenched; our lifestyles have not yet become dependent on new mobility offerings. Today, in 2017–2018 we have a window of opportunity — and there is much that can be done.