Autonomous Vehicle Fantasy or Nightmare: Cities Can Set the Stage - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Autonomous Vehicle Fantasy or Nightmare: Cities Can Set the Stage

MPC recently partnered with the Environmental Law and Policy Center to convene the first in a series of roundtables on autonomous vehicles in greater Chicago.

Close your eyes and imagine a future where cars drive themselves. Chances are, you’ve got one of two images in your mind. In the first, streets are transformed into congestion-free, crash-free transportation miracles. Cities have vibrant street life, with less space needed for cars and lots more freed up for pedestrians and bicyclists. In the second, our communities have become choked with millions of roving robocars, public transportation is long gone, the streets are devoid of pedestrians and a new wave of sprawl blankets the countryside.

The development of autonomous vehicles (AVs) can both excite and terrify, but their true impact remains to be seen. Only one thing is certain: urban mobility is about to change radically, and our region needs to act now. With that in mind, MPC recently partnered with the Environmental Law and Policy Center to convene the first in a series of roundtables on AVs in greater Chicago. Over 90 transportation leaders, advocates, and public agency leaders came together to discuss the public sector’s role in the upcoming mobility revolution. We were joined by Mollie Pelon from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and Art Pearce from the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). Mary Wisniewski, transportation reporter, for the Chicago Tribune, moderated. You can watch the entire conversation on MPC's YouTube channel.

It’s essential that local jurisdictions assert control over local operation of AVs.

So far, the AV conversation has been dominated by technologists and car manufacturers, but the public sector is increasingly joining the conversation. For instance, in September the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) released its revised AV policy framework. Guidance from Washington is important, particularly related to vehicle design, but AVs will have their greatest impact at the local and regional level. To help government agencies shape those upcoming conversations, Mollie shared recommendations from NACTO’s recently released Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism. The key message is simple, but critically important: we must enact policies to make AVs work for our cities and communities, not the other way around. AV boosters have promised many things that make urbanists drool, like reduced traffic violence, more car-free households and a greater share of the roadway dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists. But none of this will come to pass without strong local leaders creating a framework for incorporating AV technology while upholding our community values.

National Association of City Transportation Officials

With the right policies, AV technology can help us build safer, healthier streets where we move more people with fewer vehicles.

Here are four principles to make AVs work for our cities, according to NACTO’s Mollie Pelon:

  1. Design for safety. AV technology has the potential to make our streets safer and more accessible for all users by reducing roadway width, creating more frequent crossings and decreasing vehicle speed without increasing trip time.
  2. Create a platform for shared data that allows us to manage streets in real time.
  3. Commit to moving more people with fewer vehicles. If we simply replace human-driven single-occupancy vehicles with self-driving ones, we will fail to capture all the potential benefits of AVs. Our transportation networks should be rooted in robust and expanded fixed-route service, while flexible-route, microtransit and TNC services could fill in the gaps and provide universal coverage.
  4. Rethink how cities manage one of their most valuable public assets: the curb. One of the defining characteristics of an AV future is the gradual disappearance of street parking as more and more people use shared vehicles. This reduced demand means that the curbside becomes available for many new uses, such as street vendors, freight loading and green infrastructure. AVs and connected infrastructure would allow this curb management to happen dynamically, responding to demand at different times of the day and year.

Communities should not wait to set priorities for their streets in the AV era. In a number of places, AVs are already in the testing phase.  They’re not science fiction—they’re already here.

The City of Portland Bureau of Transportation has been a national leader in forward-thinking municipal AV policy. Art Pearce shared how Portland launched the Smart Autonomous Vehicles Initiative (SAVI) in April 2017, building an AV policy framework and developing best practices for testing technology. Their draft policy prioritizes autonomous vehicles that work as a fleet, are electric and shared—a set of characteristics they capture with the catchy acronym FAVES.

Portland Bureau of Transportation

Portland has developed a hierarchy of people movement priorities in which FAVES fall below walking, biking, and transit, but above low-occupancy AVs and gas-powered vehicles. As part of SAVI, the city put out a Request for Information to identify potential partners and pilot programs to start rolling out AV technology in a way that advances the goals of Portland’s comprehensive plan. They received 19 responses from 5 different states.

One of the most important lessons Pearce shared about PBOT’s experience is the need to identify clear federal, state, and local roles in AV policy formation and administration. Cities and states must still look to Washington for guidance on vehicle safety and certification, as well as to seek funding for pilot projects. Similarly, cities must look to the state for vehicle registration guidelines, funding and operational rules on state roadways. However, it’s essential that local jurisdictions assert control over local operation of AVs. “The cities that are saying ‘We’re going to wait and see for the next ten years and then join the evolution’ are really going to suffer,” said Pearce.

There will be many challenging conversations in the future as we figure out how to introduce this emerging technology into our communities, but the AV revolution is coming. The Chicago region’s public sector policy leaders can begin by learning from our colleagues around the country and by tapping into resources like the NACTO Blueprint. MPC and ELPC will continue to lead the conversation with two more roundtables in early 2018 about the impact of AVs on land use and the readiness of our infrastructure for operating this new technology.

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