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A tale of new cities: How automated driving will shape urban life

What will driverless cars mean for the future of our cities? (Photo: Fotolia)

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Gareth Watson
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How will automated driving change our cities? Urban planner Jonathan Levine is determined to find out. He sees a unique chance to improve all our lives in urban jungles – if only we make the right decisions.

Everything in a city is shaped by technology: from the infrastructure itself to the very layout of urban areas. Think about it: are there not fewer telephone boxes now than there were years ago? More electric vehicle charge points? More parking space? Automated driving is certain to have an even more sweeping impact on our cities. Trying to predict the nature of that impact is something much less certain – as Jonathan Levine, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, explains.  

“City planners in the US are at a loss as to how to plan for automated driving. We just don’t know,” admits Professor Levine.

A purpose built city for autonomous cars

And what do you do if you don’t know? You try things out. Easier said than done when it comes to deploying self-driving cars in real cities. You’d almost have to build one yourself – which is exactly what the University of Michigan did.

Mcity is a 32-acre, $10m dollar, first of its kind “city” – complete with a railroad crossing, highway sections with slip lanes, intersections, speed limit signs and fire hydrants. It was developed by the University of Michigan in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Transportation as well as various other funding partners. Its purpose? To provide a real world space to test automated mobility systems and accelerate their deployment into our cities. 

City Limits: Mcity provides a testing ground for automated driving. (Photo: University of Michigan)

The Mcity project is testament to the fact that self-driving cars will come to urban settings. While it focuses on the engineering aspects of automated driving deployment, the University’s urban planners are thinking about what it could mean for our cities at large. Indeed, the question is not if, but how it will happen. “When it comes to urban planning and autonomous vehicles, our job is not one of prediction; it’s one of decision making.”

According to Professor Levine, the decisions we make will put us on one of two paths: “On one hand, you have the ‘one autonomous car in every garage’ scenario – the private car deployment. That could potentially lead to severe traffic management and environmental problems. On the other hand, there is the car-sharing scenario – the great hope, because it can give people access to top-notch transportation services without even owning a car.” The question, which one of these dominates, will have a tremendous impact in shaping the future of our cities. 

Will automated driving influence where we live?

Take the example of urban sprawl - the movement of populations away from urban centers. “Urban sprawl in the US is largely due to advancements in driving,” Levine tells us. “With automated driving, if you can reclaim time in your car and driving commutes are no longer a chore, then perhaps this will accelerate. On the other hand, you might use a shared autonomous vehicle that you don’t have to park. As a result, inner city living becomes more affordable and attractive, and this could lead to increased urbanization.”

The great opportunity: Winning back living space

For crowded megacities, urban space is of inestimable value. We’ve all heard the crazy costs associated with prime New York real estate at thousands of dollars per square foot. If automated driving could give us some space back, there is huge potential for cities.

The Grand Canyon: self-parking cars could save this much space! (Photo: Fotolia)

A recent study from consultancy firm McKinsey predicts that by 2050, we might only need 75 percent of the space we now reserve for parking our cars. In the USA, that is the equivalent of roughly 2000 square miles (5.7 billion square meters) of space – more than enough to fit the Grand Canyon in. That is simply because autonomous cars will park themselves and will not have to leave space in between for humans to exit. 

But there is more: “It’s not the sheer space per se but where the space is,” Levine explains. “With remote parking, autonomous cars would not need to be parked close to you as they will simply come and pick you up when required. This means there could be large car parks outside urban areas saving that precious urban space for dense, walkable concentrations.” That is to say, our concrete jungles may see more parks, more social spaces, and more living space – opportunities to improve the quality of city life.

Professor Jonathan Levine

In the shared car vision, autonomous cars might not need to be parked at all and could circulate in a constant state of operation. “They would however need to go somewhere to sleep at night,” Levine quips. “But this would not need to be a traditional space as we know it. Why not use a lane of the highway where they could park before the city wakes up and demand picks up again?”

Parking is not the only means through which we might reclaim space. Fully automated vehicles will be able to safely maintain a shorter distance between each other while driving. That could mean an increased traffic capacity which would require fewer lanes. Where we might have had a multi-lane road, there may be an opportunity to provide living space.

The last stop for public transport?

How about public transport in cities? Will it still exist when autonomous cars arrive? Will subways be replaced by fleets of robo-taxis? “Whether it is replacement or complementation is a question of where is best served” Levine explains. “Shared autonomous cars on Manhattan Island? Sure there may be some but there will still be millions of people travelling underground. There will still be public transport because moving hordes of people along heavily travelled routes in separate vehicles simply doesn’t make sense.  But in medium-to-high density areas, shared automated vehicles could perform many of the functions of both the private car and some public transport lines.”

One urban planning conundrum that could be solved is the “last mile problem”. Have you ever decided to drive because the nearest bus stop is still that little bit too far? The “last mile problem” describes the difficulty of getting people from a transportation hub, like a bus depot, to their final destination – a problem, which is especially acute in the US.

“Shared automated vehicles could overcome the last mile problem,” Levine states. “For example, there could be a fleet of shared vehicles to take people to and from existing public transport. It might even be the case that the public transit companies actually run the shared car fleets.”

The conclusion

The tale of new cities is by no means a finished story. In fact, it is just getting started. Projects like Mcity are vital in helping urban planners foresee the decisions that will help shape the future of cities. As Professor Levine says: “Technology itself does not determine our future. It is up to us."

About our expert:

Jonathan Levine is a Professor of Urban Planning at A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, The University of Michigan. He is involved in the University’s Mobility Transformation Center – an organization that developed Mcity, an urban testing facility for autonomous vehicles. His research and advisory roles lie in the design of institutions for emerging transportation systems - such as autonomous vehicles - to serve metropolitan-accessibility goals. 

What impact do you see automated driving having on our cities? How much does car ownership currently influence where you live?

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