Experts agree that automated driving technologies constitute perhaps the most significant transformation in urban and transport planning since the invention of the private motor vehicle. In this article, Dr Ransford A. Acheampong assesses how policy-makers have an urgent responsibility to create alternative urban futures in which we are able to meet our everyday mobility needs with as minimal impact on the planet as possible.
- As automated driving technologies are introduced gradually into cities, urban planning has a critical role to play in anticipating the implications of this transition and mediating unwanted consequences for societies.
- Policymakers must recognise and provide opportunities for diverse viewpoints in envisioning and creating desired mobility futures. Crucially – uncertainty cannot lead to inaction.
- Transport and mobility policies and plans must address local needs and strategic imperatives such as meeting Net Zero targets. Engagement and constructive dialogue are key.
Automated driving technology – implications and challenges
AI in the form of automated driving technologies has now entered urban transport systems. The advent of automated driving technologies, including fully Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs), has the potential to reshape the built forms of our cities and everyday mobility behaviours with profound implications for meeting sustainability imperatives, including reaching Net Zero targets.
The introduction of AVs and CAVs poses enormous challenges to cities that urban planning today must anticipate and mediate in order to avert unwanted consequences. This includes creating a connected environment and infrastructure system that is safe for interactions between AVs, humans and other motorists. There is also the longstanding challenge of creating opportunities for people from different social groups to travel using different transport modes (e.g. cycling, walking and public transport). In the context of AVs, urban planning must also grapple with the challenge of ensuring that our cities grow in a sustainable way – and minimise resource consumption.
How can urban planning effectively tackle these challenges?
Urban planning has the potential to provide platforms to imagine transport and mobility futures, recognising the challenges that cities face today and unravelling possibilities to create better alternatives. However, for planning to make any meaningful contribution, it ought to recognise the importance of providing opportunities for diverse viewpoints, opinions and visions. By enabling constructive dialogue among multiple stakeholders such as national and local policymakers, planners and communities themselves, we can build consensus around the future we want for our cities and their transportation systems.
Research insights from Manchester and Melbourne
A recent joint study by The University of Manchester and University of Melbourne (Australia) provides useful insights into what engagement with multiple stakeholders can contribute to imagining urban mobility futures. We worked with stakeholders at the forefront of policy and practice, and academia to devise long-term transport and mobility visions in the contexts of AVs for their respective city-regions.
The stakeholders identified priorities based on the challenges they currently face and what they want to see changed for a better future. They prioritised:
- Efficient and affordable public transport;
- Safe transport for different groups;
- Reducing car-use and promoting active, non-motorized alternatives including walking and cycling;
- Promoting behavioural change necessary for the shift towards more sustainable modal choices.
Our stakeholders identified AVs prospects in various applications – including leveraging AVs to address existing accessibility challenges, especially in suburban and peri-urban areas poorly connected to existing public transport.
There was also a recognition that AVs could support shared-use of cars, by allowing people to request and use a car as when they need to do so without owning it. The stakeholders we engaged saw AVs are either not necessary or inherently contradictory to long-term sustainable transport and mobility imperatives. They recognised the contradiction between automated driving and the need to reverse the entrenched culture of auto-mobility and creating safe and inclusive urban environments for pedestrians, cyclists and other micro-mobility users.
Action needed for alternative urban futures
The study findings partly show the enormous challenges that policy-makers, including planners face in the unfolding transition to automated driving in cities. Often, uncertainty (an innate challenge when anticipating futures where information is limited) is cited as a major obstacle in developing strategies about the future. That said- AVs and CAVs are still cars, with the only difference being that AI drives them instead of a human driver. With the benefit of hindsight, we are already aware of the negative consequences that the car has had on societies since its advent in the 1920s. Although there are genuine uncertainties surrounding this new technology, there is a lot that we already know – uncertainty cannot be invoked as an excuse not to act.
Our findings engaging stakeholders in Greater Manchester and Melbourne expressed desire for an alternative future where our cities are not designed for cars, whether human or AI-driven. People want to see public transport systems improved and opportunities created for walking and cycling for inclusive and healthy societies.
Automated driving technology for public transport
The above does not mean automated driving technologies will have no role to play in addressing the mobility and accessibility challenges that people face. Instead, it means national and city governments ought to prioritise certain applications. Specifically, autonomous public transport (buses, trams and trains) could potentially improve the efficiency and reliability of public transport systems.
Prioritising shared-use cases of AVs could also enable more people to car-share without needing to own one.
As cities explore ways to leverage the technology to address transportation challenges, we need joined-up policy and action across domains and sectors. In the UK, this will involve strategic thinking and collaborative action across various national and sub-national government departments including Town Planning, Transport Planning, and Levelling Up, Housing & Communities in addressing the wider societal implications of AI broadly and automated transport specifically.
Transport infrastructure and strategy
As AVs become pervasive in transport systems, planners and policy-makers should resist the tendency to focus on the infrastructure systems needed to support privately owned AVs and CAVs while starving the other areas including public transport, walking and cycling of investment.
AVs are evolving within a wider ecosystem of innovations, including the development of cleaner engine fuel sources (e.g. vehicle electrification) and new business models. In the future when automated driving technology matures to be deployed for public transport use, it is likely that these forms of public transport will be fuelled by cleaner energy sources. At this stage, it would be imperative for governments to support local authorities to adopt cleaner automated buses to improve transportation systems, similar to the Department of Transport Zero Emissions Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) Scheme to help the local authorities in England invest in zero-emission buses. Not doing so would constitute a repetition of urban planning’s mistake in allowing the car to dictate how cities have been designed and built to date.
As this transition unfolds, urban planners and policy-makers have a duty to imagine alternative futures where technology is harnessed to address unequal accessibility challenges, and contribute to zero emissions targets. Urban and transport planning must endeavour to promote more active, non-motorized forms of transport including walking and cycling. This requires strategic planning and action across various national government departments in lockstep with local authorities. Policymakers must also engage, listen to and prioritise the desires and expectation of the communities they serve and represent.