The self-driving car in tomorrow’s cities: heaven or hell?

A group of companies led by transportation expert and Zipcar founder Robin Chase that includes transport research institutes, NGOs, consultants, and a long and varied list of companies in the field of mobility (up to 17) companies including BlaBlaCar, Citymapper, Didi, Lyft, Mobike, Ofo, Ola, Uber or Zipcar has published 10 shared principles for livable cities. But some of the proposals have already prompted an angry response, notably the group’s tenth and final recommendation banning private ownership of autonomous vehicles in inner cities, which instead would be operated exclusively on a shared basis and run by fleets.

In reality, this is a far from radical idea and one that is shared by most transportation experts, as I’ve noted in previous posts: there are two possible scenarios for autonomous vehicles in cities: the hell scenario, in which individual ownership just means more traffic chaos as we use them to go shopping, pick the kids up from school and clog up our streets as we drive round looking for somewhere to park. The heaven scenario is where we hire from a range of self-driving vehicles from fleets, either on a shared basis or individually, thereby significantly reducing the amount of traffic on our roads. The first scenario pretty much continues the system by which we own vehicles we only use 5% of time, while the latter differs in that professional fleet managers own and manage these vehicles, with individuals using them as a service.

City authorities have a key role to play in which scenario makes most sense: they can impose restrictions to prevent private vehicles entering high-density areas, restricting them to fleets. Similarly, zero emissions policies would reduce congestion and air pollution. A ban on road parking would completely change the appearance of our cities, making loading and unloading easier and quicker. But imposing such restrictions have political costs, as the reaction from some quarters shows. The problem is that many of us believe we have a God-given right to drive and park our cars where we like and are unable to see the greater good.

The idea of moving toward fleets of hire-only self-driving vehicles certainly makes sense, but whether it can be put into practice is another question. More and more cities seem to be coming round to the idea of eliminating or reducing the use of private vehicles and replacing them with a combination of public transport, assorted car-sharing schemes and bicycles. Traffic levels in our cities are unsustainable, but creating urban environments free of private vehicles is a hard sell to voters.

Cities such as Oslo, which have proposed a total ban on private vehicles in the city center from next year, are possible because they directly affect relatively few people: around 1,000, even if many tens of thousands work there every day, while 83% of the Norwegian capital’s residents rate their public transport as good or very good, and a quarter of the total population of the country already mainly moves around on foot or by bicycle. Madrid plans to partially exclude cars from more areas of ​​the city center, although residents will continue to use roads to park, entering these new zones via camera systems with license plate recognition. Paris is introducing progressive and selective restrictions (a ban on diesel vehicles and entry into certain areas only allowed for zero emission vehicles) that seem to be bearing fruit: in 2001, 40% of residents did not own a car, a figure that had increased to 60% in 2015. Hamburg does not pose restrictions as such, but it is making it easier and easier to walk or use bicycles, and has an ambitious plan to build parks that will connect all areas of the city and cover almost 40% of it.

More and more cities are considering imposing limits on privately owned vehicles, albeit very gradually, through a combination of carrot and stick: restrictions and measures that encourage alternative, non-polluting means of transportation over the coming decades.

The controversial measure proposed by Robin Chase and co. isn’t going to happen overnight, and would be part of a long-term strategy that would see city planners focus not on the needs of motorists, but everybody. Despite the ruckus the recommendation may have prompted, it is logical, rational and desirable. Mooting it now is simply a way of floating an idea that will first require a much needed change of mentality on all our parts.

(En español, aquí)