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How do we manage the smart-mobility revolution? It starts with well-crafted policy.

June 12, 2019

The positive potential of autonomous vehicles is enormous, but we need to make deliberate decisions to make sure we are realizing that potential

This week, the 27th annual Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) will take place in Louisville, Kentucky, and as a Louisvillian, I’m looking forward to showing off our examples of good urbanism, old and new. Some of my favorites—Old Louisville, Norton Commons, Park DuValle, and Butchertown/Phoenix Hill—will be on the Congress agenda as options to tour and discover. There will also be an impressive slate of sessions, including a few led by my Stantec colleagues.

One popular topic we will be discussing in depth at CNU is the impending adoption of autonomous vehicles (AVs), which is reflective of the quickening pace of technology and design advancements in the smart-mobility market. Seeing all these sessions covering AVs is another reminder that in Louisville and our region, like much of the US, the development of land use and transportation policy to govern the use of AVs is fighting to keep up with technological advancements.

Full AV implementation on our roads will likely involve increased efficiencies that increase capacity like narrower lanes and vehicles platooning.

Kentucky is among 29 states that have enacted legislation relating to AVs. In Kentucky, legislation allows commercial motor carriers to platoon AVs, and neighboring Ohio has an enabling law for AV testing and piloting programs. This is good news as it indicates AVs are on the radar of state legislatures, but their limited scope reminds us that we still have work to do before the proliferation of AVs that may be just around the corner.

CNU attendees will have plenty of opportunities to attend sessions focused on AVs and recent advancements in technology, infrastructure, and urban design.

While many AV researchers predict a ride- and car-sharing future that results in fewer vehicles on the road and lower overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT), we need to make deliberate decisions to make sure we are realizing the positive potential of AVs. We can’t ignore that North America has been car-oriented for decades, and that won’t change overnight. As AVs hit the market, consumer desire is likely to focus on personal vehicles, not shared ones. The cultural shift to shared mobility in most of the country is going to take time, and we need to look at ways that AVs are most likely to be used in order to plan for them.

In the near term, it is possible we may see an increase in personal autonomous vehicles because of the accessibility gains for people without drivers’ licenses, those with disabilities, and the elderly. It’s also possible to imagine unaccompanied children in AVs and AVs running errands without an occupant, further adding vehicles to our roadways. Given the convenience of riding versus driving, AVs may increase the number of people making even longer commutes and choosing to use their personal AVs for short trips that could be accomplished by walking, biking, or transit.

The operational efficiency of connected AVs promises fewer accidents and better traffic flow once we’re set up for them, but that doesn’t mean we won’t still have to consider congestion-reducing solutions such as tolls, congestion pricing, and AV-only lanes. Our challenge is to make sure these solutions are equitable for as many people as possible, focusing on increased mobility for individuals as well as addressing the needs of the wider community.

In a local transit study for the growing Town of Okotoks, Alberta, Stantec supplemented the transit plan with an option to integrate autonomous shuttles. Detailed site analysis, engagement workshops, technical evaluation, and costing were all provided to support Okotoks’ transit and AV futures.

Another policy challenge that could come from a transitionary period that sees more VMT from more AVs is an increase in emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gasses. While it’s likely that most AVs will be electric, the emissions gains will be marginal at best if the electricity grid that charges them is powered by fossil fuels. Until jurisdictions transition to a power grid dominated by renewables, we are simply shifting the location of the emissions, rather than reducing or eliminating them.

The public realm in our cities is also likely to undergo a major transformation, which will be shaped by our AV parking policy. With AVs dropping riders at their destination and then self-parking, spaces such as street parking and nearby garages and surface lots may no longer be necessary, opening new development and streetscape design opportunities. Policy will guide those opportunities and the designs that follow, and important questions regarding parking locations need to be addressed. If an AV can’t find a parking spot, for example, can it simply drive around until its owner is ready to leave?

CNU attendees will have plenty of opportunities to attend sessions focused on AVs and recent advancements in technology, infrastructure, and urban design. As mentioned above, some of my Stantec colleagues are presenting on various topics, including AVs, streetscape design, curbside management, and suburban redevelopment. These topics are perfect for CNU, as new urban developments—particularly new planned communities and redevelopment areas—offer the opportunity for early integration of smart mobility technology and infrastructure. These communities also present the opportunity to demonstrate how land use and transportation policy governing AVs can advance safety, access, and equity.

AVs will be an essential part of our transportation future, but we need to start developing well-crafted land use and transportation policy for their arrival. There are a number of resources to help guide those conversations—the American Planning Association’s Principles for Autonomous Vehicle Policy is one such resource.

Professional planners, architects, landscape architects, and engineers all have a Code of Ethics that can help us share our best advice as states and municipalities continue to develop policy. These are conversations our professions must be willing to engage in, working together on developing solutions that work for our society.

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