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Self-driving Cars

From no parking garages to no traffic lights, autonomous vehicles mean city planners and politicians have a real chance to design a more liveable city

Self-driving Cars The cities of the future: No traffic, parking or lights


In the city of the future, commutes will be shorter. There won't be street or underground parking or even traffic lights. Instead, there will be more green space, more cyclists, pedestrians on the road, and less space devoted to cars. Future generations may never have to worry about parking, speeding tickets, distracted drivers and may never witness a car crash. Shared, electric, self-driving cars will pick people up upon request and woosh them to their destinations.

This is the vision city planners and researchers have for major cities in 20-40 years.

The big fear, however, is that autonomous vehicles will instead clog up streets and exacerbate problems already caused by cars.

"If we simply replace autonomous vehicles one-for-one for the cars we have today, nothing really changes," says Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner for the City of Toronto.

Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat.

Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat.

A study – compiled by the location technology company, Here, and analyst group SBD – found autonomous vehicles will make Britain's roads more congested. Accordingly, Toronto's 65-minute average commute time would get worse. Congestion already costs the Greater Toronto Area as much as $11-billion a year.

"We really want to think about how we can harness autonomous vehicles to serve the city and make the city what we want," says Steve Buckley, former general manager of transportation services for the City of Toronto.

Steve Buckley, Toronto's general manager of transportation services, sits on his desk in Toronto city hall.

Steve Buckley, Toronto’s former general manager of transportation services, sits on his desk in Toronto city hall, in May 2016.

Deb Baic/The Globe and Mail

How we created the problem

Most North American cities began to expand after the Second World War, as the car came of age.

"We began redesigning our cities to accommodate cars," says Keesmaat. "We started making roads wider, we built a freeway system across North America based on the dream that you could have a very easy, quick ride from A to B. And, of course, that dream hasn't held."

Instead, 25 per cent of the total land area in cities like Toronto is dedicated to roads, which are often congested.

"The introduction of cars as the primary form of transportation in our cities was based on a false premise … that there would be enough room on the street for everyone to be getting around with ease in their car," Keesmaat says. It "was a fundamental premise that we got wrong."

The end result: streets that are not pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.

"The big problem for the planning profession is, they don't actually get to do planning because the car has created a situation where they are, instead of planning for the future, trying to fix the problem of the past," says David Ticoll, of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. "But you have to deal with the cards you are dealt. You have a canvas full of stuff. And, then this thing (autonomous vehicles) comes along, and you have a whole new toolkit."

The goal is to use self-driving cars to create a better, more livable city.

"It should be the vision that drives the conversation," says Antonio Gomez-Palacio, principal of planning and urban design at Dialog. "What does it mean for parking, transit and transportation systems? Otherwise we'll be straddled with the unintended consequences."

Gomez-Palacio says technology should be adapted to create the best possible city. In other words, the tail shouldn't wag the dog.

The city of the future

Gomez-Palacio and other planners say the city of the future is one with reduced dependency on the car.

According to Canadian Automobile Association data, the average cost to own and operate a car is $10,456 a year. That is a lot of money for something, that Keesmaat says sits idle 97 per cent of the time. Love of driving aside, Ticoll says the selling feature to the shared car may be that it will cost 20-30 per cent of what it currently costs.

If cars are shared and constantly in use, cities could eliminate street parking, but will need dedicated zones for loading passengers. Highrises won't need vast underground parking. Buckley suspects traffic signals will communicate with cars to let them know when lights are going to change so they can operate most efficiently.

"If you are looking [forward] 30-to-40 years, you'd notice all the vehicles will be electric self-driving taxis, you'd notice human drivers were generally banned, you'd notice far less parking, and hopefully, if city policies are in alignment, those parking spaces would be green spaces," says Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence. "It would be a less-polluted and much more pleasant place to live."

MIT's Senseable City Lab goes a step further and eliminates traffic lights. It shows how cars – through communication with each other – can adjust speed to cross an intersection at a specific time, saving time and energy.

By becoming better at detecting objects – including pedestrians and cyclists – that human drivers, autonomous vehicles enable safer mingling of cars, bikers and walkers. Think about it. Which would a cyclist trust more: a few dozen cameras and sensors, or two eyes, which may be looking at a smartphone? And with autonomous vehicles capable of driving closer together, each lane would have a greater load capacity, meaning other lanes could potentially be repurposed.

A biker uses the protected bike lanes along Richmond Street West in Toronto’s Entertainment District.

A biker uses the protected bike lanes along Richmond Street West in Toronto’s Entertainment District.

Hand-out/Toronto Entertainment District

Indeed, remove the human element from driving and naturally, traffic should decrease dramatically. In a 2008 experiment by the Mathematical Society of Traffic Flow and the University of Nagoya, Japan, 22 drivers were instructed to drive on a circular road at 30 km/h. But they weren't able to keep constant speeds or distances, each speeding up and slowing down, and eventually coming to a dead stop.

"In 20 or 30 years from now, we'll look back at this moment in history and say, 'Wow, that was terrible, remember when people used to commute for 45 minutes each way?'" says Keesmaat. "Great cities are places where sometimes you can walk, sometimes you can cycle, sometimes you can take transit, sometimes you can take a car and, if we see autonomous vehicles as being a part of the layering to all of those movement choices, they can enhance our overall city building objectives."

This is the final article in a seven-part multimedia series on self-driving cars that examines the past, the current technology and what the future may hold.