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Autonomous Vehicles and City Planning

Something I have been thinking about lately: how should potential changes to transportation effect City planning?

Our cities are built around the automobile. Getting people and goods around safely and efficiently is one of the biggest considerations in municipal planning. Roads and parking are expensive, take up a lot of space, last a long time, and are very difficult to move. This means they need to be planned and built for decades of use. However, this is difficult to do when many think we are on the cusp of a dramatic change in transportation.

Anticipated changes include:

All of these will impact the way people get around town. However, the biggest potential disruption is autonomous vehicles. They have the greatest potential to change how people move around. Even more significantly, they also have the potential to change how consumer goods and industrial equipment are moved.


The Impact of Self-Driving Vehicles

If autonomous vehicles become widely adopted, this will have a wide-ranging impact on the way our City works.

Traffic flows will change. Without the need to pay for or interact with a cab driver, more people will likely travel in small vehicles. Without the need to pay for drivers and to worry about their rest periods, commercial trucking may also see an uptake. Autonomous vehicles could put significantly more cars on our roads. At the same time, these vehicles may flow better as computers make decisions. They will also obey the laws of the road, meaning that enforcement needs will significantly decrease. 

Self-driving cars will change how our roads are used. However, just as significantly, they will likely change how we park.

As ride hailing becomes more convenient and economical (and as transit services and urban density increase), it is likely that there will be less personally owned vehicles- residential parking needs will decrease. Even more significantly for some areas: parking won't need to be as close to people's destinations. Parking within a block or two of your destination isn't as important if you can get out, send your car to park itself, then get it to come pick you up again.

Autonomous vehicles will significantly impact our roads and parking lots.


New Technology and Municipal Planning

Autonomous vehicles have undergone successful road tests for years. There are already consumer cars available with automatic steering, speed control, and parking. In November, Las Vegas launched an autonomous shuttle bus (it was in an accident its first day- this was caused by a human delivery truck driver's error and made into a very minor incident by the bus' response). I've read many sources estimating that autonomous vehicles will have significant market share within the next two decades (here is one example from the MIT Technology Review). Self-driving cars seem to be on the way.

In my mind, wide-spread adoption of autonomous vehicles is inevitable. There is little question of "if" it will happen. The big question is "when" it will happen. Will we start seeing big changes in the next decade? The next two decades? Or not for many decades to come? Nobody really knows. But what we do know is that self-driving cars and other technological upgrades will change our urban landscape. If our city isn't ready for this, there are two big risks I see:

  1. We could have undersized roads if more vehicles are suddenly in play
  2. We could have missed opportunities. Parking lots take up a lot of prime real estate, and they are very expensive to install (about $15 000 for a surface space, $35 000 for an above-ground parkade space, and over $50 000 for an under-ground parkade space). These resources are worthwhile when a parking lot is used for its lifetime. But they may be better allocated if the parking lot is only used for a decade or two

These risks very much interact with the work of Council. Later this year, Council will be presented with a new Transportation Master Plan. It will guide our infrastructure development strategies. Parking is also a frequent topic of discussion: it comes up every time we talk residential development, and it was one of the big concerns people had with Downtown Rehabilitation. So this topic is very much in my brain.

I'm trying to figure out to what extent potential future technology should impact today's decisions. At the same time, I realize that I am a sci-fi loving optimist. I likely give this topic more thought than it deserves because it is fun for me. So I would love the input of others.

Do you agree that our transportation methods will change? If so, are there risks I am missing? And how big a factor should potential changes be in Council decisions? Should we be making decisions as if this technological change is going to happen within the next decade or two? Or should we be making decisions based only on current technology and infrastructure usage?

Thanks for reading about my thoughts. I look forward to hearing yours.



Extra Thoughts: Will GP Be Behind the Curve?

As I talk to people about self-driving cars, I've heard a few comments like "that's great for California, but it will never happen in GP." Often two impediments are cited: our driving conditions and our culture. However, I don't think these will cause Grande Prairie adoption to lag behind other jurisdictions.

I don't buy that our driving conditions will set us back. I haven't seen any evidence that autonomous vehicles will have greater challenges than humans dealing with slippery roads. Their biggest challenge right now is seeing through rain and snow. However, my understanding is that the big problem here is software rather than hardware related- computers need to be trained to differentiate between a snow flurry and a solid object. Tests and machine learning are already underway in inclement weather. I suspect that these challenges will get solved. I also strongly doubt that widespread autonomous vehicles will be insurable anywhere until they can safely navigate in all conditions. Challenges with inclement weather may set the technology back, but it won't set Grande Prairie behind other areas.

I also don't buy that Grande Prairie's culture will set adoption back. I don't share the negative stereotypes that are wrapped up in this assumption. We are a community of young, adaptable, curious, and entrepreneurial people. We also have lots of wealth to spend on new technology. I would expect to see Grande Prairie consumers adopt new technology just as fast as people elsewhere.

However, our local culture might have little to do with the speed of adoption. I suspect that corporations will be driving this technology more than anything else. A big promise of self-driving cars is safety. Computers don't get tired or impaired and they will [theoretically] make less errors than the most alert human drivers. Autonomous cars could lead to a significant decline in accidents. If self-driving cars do dramatically improve safety, insurance companies could give us consumers little choice but to switch.

Additionally, we could see company-owned vehicles leading the way in adoption. If so, Grande Prairie could actually end up seeing autonomous vehicles on its roads sooner than many other jurisdictions. Our local economy is driven by industry which is very safety conscious and willing to adopt new technologies. Self-driving cars may not be able to do all the off-pavement driving needed for oil and gas, but they could take over the highway components. These are often the most dangerous parts of a trip, and I could see local operations being eager to mitigate highway risks. If we start seeing lots of autonomous work and heavy duty trucks, consumer adoption will likely follow.

I suspect that self-driving cars will be adopted first in very large urban centers. Their gridlock, commuting times, and high amounts of pedestrians who could be protected make the benefits of autonomous vehicles the most appealing. However, I suspect that Grande Prairie adoption will likely be on or ahead of pace with other cities of our size.