Less parking revenue, more congestion: why cities will have to plan for driverless cars

The cars of the future will drive themselves. That will not only change the way drivers interact with cars, but it will change the way cities do too. Sean Rathwell helps cities plan their transportation futures, and he joins us to explain some of the issues they need to plan for.
A Google car. (CBC)

It wasn't so long ago that self-driving cars were just a cute concept of the future. 

But now it may just be a matter of years before one pulls up beside you — Google plans to have its cars on the road by 2020 —  so our infrastructure needs to be ready. 

That's where Sean Rathwell come in. Rathwell, a civil engineer, has been studying autonomous vehicles so that he can better advise his some of his clients — municipalities planning transportation of all measures. 

They know it's coming, and everybody's trying to figure out how to move forward, and what the issues are going to be, and how it's going to affect our society.- Sean Rathwell

He says there is a lot to consider when planning cities to accommodate autonomous vehicles —  from making sure street lights can communicate with the cars and vice-versa, to accounting for what may happen to transit, congestion, and parking, if residents adopt autonomous vehicles en masse.

Click the play button above to hear the full interview. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

What effect could self-driving cars have on public transit? 

Well with public transit, there's a few different things that you can look at, and, depending on your perspective, whether they're good or bad. 

Out in lower density suburban areas, where it's expensive to run effective transit service, you could imagine a fleet of self-driving, automated taxis, or small transit vehicles, that are collecting you at the bus stops, or potentially even at your door, and then taking you to the nearest rapid transit station or to the bus stop at the busy transit route at the arterial street. 

An artist rendering of potential future transit infrastructure in Calgary. Sean Rathwell says Canadian cities are starting to think about planning for self-driving cars, and it's important they do. (City of Calgary)

So it could, in a sense, enable sprawl? 

It could absolutely enable sprawl, and just the fact that I might be able to roll out of bed in the morning, and get in my self-driving car and eat my breakfast and read the newspaper, I might be happy to live an hour and a half out of town, because I'm gaining that time.

The other side of it, though, with transit, is if you've got such an effective fleet of self-driving taxis, and it's easy to get them, and they're plentiful and not too expensive, you might find people trying to make their whole journey on them. So you've got this fleet of tiny little self-driving cars plugging up the current roads as they all try to come into the downtown core for 8:30 or 9:00, and that could cannibalize the rapid transit systems. 

So this is why you have to decide as a city, what kind of city you want to have. And consider all the modes together — self-driving cars are just part of the picture, but most cities want to be clean, and walkable, and not too congested with a lot of vehicles. So that means you need to have great cycling facilities, great transit facilities, and you have to put all those pieces together, and think about the future. 

Of course, if the concept of car ownership is either eliminated or reduced, then we're also eliminating or reducing the need for parking spaces along the sides of every street. 

There's different thoughts about parking. 

On one the hand, if there's a mostly self-driving fleet and you can send the car away, to a place where you can park for free, or it's a system of self-driving taxis that don't need to park, imagine the hit on municipal revenues. 

If we all own, or many of us own, our own self-driving vehicle, you might want to get in it, commute to downtown, and then send it away somewhere so you don't have to pay the downtown parking charge. So you're going to either send it home, or send it to somewhere out in residential neighbourhood closer to downtown where you can park on the street for free, thus causing different issues in those communities where all of a sudden all these cars are trying to park. 


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