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Walking amongst autonomous cars

The challenge

Introducing autonomous vehicles onto our city streets will completely change the way we get around. How do we make sure our cities remain healthy, social and walkable once there's an easier way to get around?

In this article

  • The benefits of walkable cities, from liveability to our physical health.
  • How walkability and autonomous vehicles (AVs) will interact as we approach the introduction of AVs into our cities.

Over the past decade more and more cities have been catching on to the benefits of walkable streets. A shift away from car dominated planning is yielding healthier, more socially connected, and increasingly prosperous places. Many of these benefits are explored in greater detail in our Cities Alive: Towards a Walking World publication. But what does the success of this people-first movement look like once we begin to introduce autonomous vehicles (AVs) onto our streets.

Amy Child, an Associate in our Melbourne office, shares a lot of the enthusiasm around AVs. They offer the potential to reduce the accidents on our roads and do away with congestion. The elderly, from whom driving is no longer a safe option, will be reacquainted with the mobility of their youth. But Amy also believes a lot more thought needs to go into how AVs will interact with others forms of transport—particularly walkability.

“I imagine this is what it was like in the 1920s when the car came about,” says Amy. “But now—a full century later—half of our job as transport planners is to reverse the damage done by creating so much car dependency in our cities.” The policies and decisions we make - or fail to make - about AVs today will hugely impact how our streets look and feel in the future.

Our Cities Alive - Towards a Walking World publication explores the many benefits of walkable cities. Photo Arup

Human Centred Design

This research explores how autonomous vehicles can be fit into our cities without sacrificing those cities' walkability. Active transport influences so many other aspect of the built environment. Walkability influences the way our streets are designed. It feeds into our precinct planning and dictates where and what public transport options are available.

Amy believes there are plenty of opportunities for AVs to create more walkable environments. AVs can help make public transit a viable option for those who live in rural areas, where train stations are difficult to access. Connected AVs will drive closer together meaning we can narrow the width of our streets and potentially reclaim public space. But unless we start thinking now about how AVs will fit into our existing transport mix they may take some control away from the pedestrians in our cities as well.  

Here’s an example: Today, pedestrians generally wait for the road to be clear before crossing. What happens when that road is filled with AVs that will stop for them automatically? Will people begin stepping out into the road more often, slowing traffic because they know they can? Will we see guard rails go up to control pedestrians if people and AVs aren’t able to constructively interact, leading to less public space and more street clutter?

Amy’s research doesn’t hold all the answers to these hypotheticals. Rather, the goal is to prompt city leaders to start thinking now about technological changes that will have a big impact later. The AV revolution may be packed with promises but we need to be proactive and ensure the right policies are put place so that we benefit from their potential without foregoing walkable streets.

Findings

  • To date most of the discussion surrounding AVs has been  focused on the technology, road safety outcomes and, to some extent, ownership models. We also need to grow conversations about the impacts AVs may have on physical and social health, and the urban realm.
  • Agendas for walkable cities and autonomous vehicle aren't necessarily incompatible. However, we need to think through politics and practicalities of both now to shape the world we want tomorrow.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Kylie Nixon
Kylie Nixon leads our transport planning team in Brisbane

Ask Amy about

  1. The social, economic, environmental and political benefits of walkable cities
  2. Where opportunities exist for us to create more walkable cities as our streets are transformed by the introduction of AVs
  3. The role policy and transport planning will play in assuring these opportunities are realised

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