The future of cities depends on the decisions we make about self-driving cars today. If we do nothing to regulate the use of AVs before they hit the roads, they will most likely replace human-driven cars—not improve upon them and reduce their negative impacts on cities and on lives, but simply replace them.
Cities today are dominated by cars, even when ignoring cities like Los Angeles that feel designed with cars specifically in mind (e.g., wide lanes on wide streets that go through underpasses to avoid intersections). Having AVs rather than human-driven cars roam the streets will not make them any safer or more pleasant if we don’t change the underlying priorities that shape cities.
Right now, there is still significant resistance to road changes that reduce speed and improve safety in some places. In Los Angeles, some drivers put up so much resistance to a road diet that it was reversed, despite studies proving road diets save lives. Clearly, we do not yet have the political will to prioritize safety over speed on city streets. If AVs become common before our priorities and policies change, we might be stuck with cities that are increasingly hostile to everyone but AV passengers. It’s much smarter and easier to create policies that anticipate potential problems with AVs, rather than try to play catch up once AVs are on the roads and passengers feel entitled to maintain the status quo.
Without preemptive policy interventions, the potential benefits of AVs (and there are many) may not be realized, or may only be realized for a small portion of society. There is good reason to fear that, just as with cars, AV users will be the primary beneficiaries of goods all members of society pay to provide (just like roads today).
With preemptive policy interventions, however, AVs could do wonders for our cities and lives. They could revolutionize streets, parking, how we commute, and how goods are delivered in cities. Pre-emptive policies can make AVs another tool that helps us achieve our societal goals—hopefully furthering the previous, not current, administration’s goals, although AVs could promote either.
My overall hope for AVs is that they will help empower citizens to reduce our overdependence on personal vehicles. The world is continuing to urbanize, and AVs could make that transition easier for both cities and individuals. If AVs are shared and work as a fleet with every vehicle being essentially interchangeable, they could supplement public transportation to offer even greater mobility in cities. They could provide first- and last-mile transit, and could replace public transit service during the middle of the night when demand is low (i.e., primarily third shift workers) but still needs to be met for equity reasons, and to avoid federal complaints about civil right violations.
AVs could open up new space in cities that can be used to meet people’s needs (housing; small-scale food production; green space; civic space; businesses), and thus make it easier to increase density in cities. Without a glut of personal vehicles clogging up space, higher density cities become much easier to achieve, and much more pleasant to live in.
Our policy decisions will determine the impacts of AVs – depending on our actions, AVs could make society more equitable, less polluting, and more enjoyable to live in, or they could compound all the issues we already face. This video does an excellent job of summarizing the importance of the choices we face with AVs: