Walkable City Rules: Don’t Expand City Streets for Self-Driving Cars

Jeff Speck: Do not allow AVs to undermine large-vehicle transit in places with significant traffic congestion.

As travel becomes cheaper and time wasted in traffic becomes more pleasant, AVs threaten to make congestion worse. Image Credit: © Rinspeed
As travel becomes cheaper and time wasted in traffic becomes more pleasant, AVs threaten to make congestion worse. Image Credit: © Rinspeed

This excerpt from the upcoming book Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places by Jeff Speck is the first in a series for Streetsblog. 

North America, along with much of the world, has been building and rebuilding its cities and towns quite badly for more than half a century. To do it properly would have been easy; we used to be great at it. But, like voting for president, just because something is easy to do does not mean that it will be done, or done well.

To rectify the sporadic spread of city planning best practices, I published Walkable City in 2012. The timing was fortunate: while the term was not often used before 2010, walkability now seems to be the special sauce that every community wants. It took a while, but many of our leaders have realized that establishing walkability as a central goal can be an expeditious path to making our cities better in a whole host of ways.

Packaged as “literary nonfiction” and “current affairs,” Walkable City was effective at finding readers, armchair urbanists curious about what makes cities tick. It made its way into mayors’ offices, council chambers, and town meetings, held aloft by people demanding change. Sometimes, change was begun. . . and that’s when the problems started. While the book does a decent job of inspiring change, it doesn’t exactly tell you how to create it.

Hence this new book, Walkable City Rules, an effort to weaponize walkable city for deployment in the field. A brief excerpt follows.

RULE 26: Anticipate Autonomous Vehicles: Unless we make rules now, they are likely to do more harm than good.

It sometimes seems that all anyone wants to walk about these days in cities is Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). How soon will they arrive? Will they swarm? How are they likely to change our cities, and our lives?

Proponents of AVs are quick to tout all the potential benefits. These include a dramatic drop in driving deaths, reduced car ownership, less congestion, more personalized transit service, and the elimination of much on-street parking, allowing a ton of street space to be rededicated to walking, biking, and greenery.

Unfortunately, a more careful thought experiment, informed by a fuller under-standing of American cities and their governance, leads to some less optimistic conclusions.When it comes to transit, even AVs must follow the laws of physics, and there is no getting around the fact that one New York City L Train carries as many commuters per hour as 2,000 cars. History would suggest that the widely held vision of swarming public fleets, uninterrupted by private and non-autonomous cars, is unlikely to happen in the United States, where no city has ever shown the willingness to limit private car use in any meaningful way, despite crippling traffic.

Unlike in less libertarian countries, American cities must plan for incomplete, uncoordinated AV adoption. And while car ownership may decline with AVs, car use will not. Zipcar founder Robin Chase, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, and many other thoughtful people predict a massive increase in car trips as a result of autonomy, due to the likelihood of lower driving costs.

But that’s not all. Since time wasted in traffic is currently the principal constraint to driving, any boost in roadway efficiency (through tighter vehicle spacing) will increase car use, as will the fact that time in traffic will become productive for work or play. Bloomberg and others suggest regulation through laws,  but there is a simpler way: regulation through lanes.

In an AV future, each city street would ideally be allocated a limited number of driving lanes, no more than currently present. Only in this way will our downtowns remain welcoming to more than just cars. Moreover, cheap automobiles were the principal enabler of suburban sprawl. As autonomy makes it even cheaper to access far-flung locations, there is danger of a second wave of exurban dislocation. Cities that wish to avoid the long-term balance-sheet burden represented by low-density suburbia must double-down on efforts to promote “smart growth,” which mostly means eliminating all hidden subsidies for sprawl.

When it comes to transit, even AVs must follow the laws of physics, and there is no getting around the fact that one New York City L Train carries as many commuters per hour as 2,000 cars. Each city bus replaces about 50 cars.

Even swarming AVs will never come close to providing the services of a well- used transit vehicle. Replacing transit with small AVs in congested city centers would cripple mobility. They must be understood as a supplement, not a solution. For that reason, only cities with no congestion and insignificant transit ridership should plan to convert transit to autonomous cars. Unfortunately, the prospect of such service is already threatening transit investment in certain congested American cities, like Mountain View, CA, where dedicated bus lanes were recently defeated in part due to the promise of autonomy.

Cities must show informed leadership on this challenging issue.

Copyright © 2018 Jeff Speck. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.

  • Stephen Simac

    I’m currently reading a book about Autonomous Vehicles, electric propulsion and shared cars for hire from the UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies. They point out that while these may lead to safer, less polluted, more accessible public spaces, there is a strong likelihood that they will cause the existing dystopian traffic mess to become an absolute nightmare if left to private enterprise and narrowly focused politicians. The authors (it’s a compilation) barely treat bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and completely ignore the growing demand by the elite for personal flying transport by drone or AV helicopters, regardless of the desires and safety of the little people on the ground. This will not be a short war for equitable transportation policies,(I’ve been in it for 40 years without making a dent in the armored ignorance of American motorists) so it’s critical to join forces with allies, bridging across minor differences, finding and creatively using persuasive arguments and memes to change hearts and minds as they say.

  • nlpnt

    A big issue I see with shared AVs is that with the taxi-medallion system already broken in the last round of disruption, the cost of drivers is now the principal obstacle to flooding the streets with as many of *your* fleet/service/app’s cars as possible to protect market share. Take that away and you get 24/7 gridlock.

    Another one is that the top picture is obviously a privately-owned one. If it were shared the screen would be broken, only about half the soft indirect lights would work and there’d be a pool of puke left by someone on the way home from the bars last night that’s just gonna be there until this AV’s next scheduled trip to the cleaning depot Tuesday afternoon.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    It’s amusing hearing Speck opine on this when he has long advocated for parking at the expense of bike infrastructure.

  • Stephen Simac

    She probably wouldn’t have her bare feet up on a public shared seat either. Although to be fair, there are some private cars that resemble your description of “the tragedy of the commons” cars. However there wouldn’t be any scheduled cleaning.

  • Stephen Simac

    Since almost half the costs of bus transit operations are from drivers, theoretically autonomous buses could become more frequent, smaller (larger buses make economic sense if filled, based on driver costs) cleaner (both interior and environmentally), smoother transport with the same level of funding. Yet drivers perform many unheralded yet important services besides driving. I’m an advocate for bicycle buses and cycletrains on road embedded monorails, because human powered transit (with electric motor assist) solves several critical problems around transportation, vehicle induced sedentary obesity medical costs, lonely lifestyles, air, water and noise pollution.

  • opafiets

    It is interesting that the author notes the L train being able to move as many people as 2,000 cars when the failings of this train and many others on the subway system are making more people turn to cars, not to mention the upcoming shutdown of the L train tunnels for repairs. Yes, of course it is important to adequately find mass transit, but it is also important for cities to respond to current conditions and the conditions that AVs will bring. I have been developing ideas to use vehicle sharing and autonomous shuttle to reduce congestion at the Hudson crossings. You can read about it here: https://cross-hudsoncommutesolution.com/

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