How driverless cars are changing the landscape
Autonomous vehicles are coming to our streets more quickly than we realise, writes landscape architect Ashley Penn, from Jolma Architects in Finland. So, with the rapid acceleration of the autonomous vehicle (AV) market, what are the challenges facing urban designers? And how will AV affect the urban fabric of our cities?
Since the invention of the car our urban and suburban environments have been primarily designed for private car use, although the rise in ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have seen a reduction in the private ownership of vehicles. And that has already begun to shape the fabric of some cities. Projects like Berges de Seine Paris and Rhone River Bank Lyon show how spaces in the city that were once dominated by cars can be converted to public open spaces that serve the city and it’s residents.
And as technology develops and becomes cheaper the demand for AVs will increase, with some experts predicting they’ll make up a quarter of all car sales by 2040. But Independent think tank Rethink, which focuses on the future of technology, it’ll be private companies, not individuals, owning the AVs, using them for on-demand services.
If by 2040 some 25% of cars on our roads are AVs, we should be adapting our cities to accommodate this change and preparing for the time when all cars will be autonomous.
AVs currently use LiDAR (a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor) to scan the road ahead. This technology is best at reading the road ahead at between 100-200 metres. However, by incorporating roadside sensors along the length of the road, information about road condition, weather, and unexpected events can be relayed to all cars simultaneously. Cities need to start thinking now about how some kind of sensing equipment can be incorporated into the streetscape so as to avoid an ugly retro-fitted solution in years to come, rather than a properly integrated system that augments the built environment.
Pedestrians will benefit from better connected AVs. The present car-centric design of our cities means pedestrians are forced to walk to the nearest road junction or underpass to safely cross roads. Car driven by computers mean faster reaction times, which means truly shared surfaces can be used throughout the city. And a walkable city is a more attractive environment with physical and psychological benefits.
Reduced numbers of cars means reduced spatial requirements, with some experts predicting that efficiencies in automating traffic flows mean vehicles will be able to drive at higher densities. Roads could be narrower, with fewer lanes, which would mean sidewalks could be wider, accommodating other functions such as linear parks, sustainable urban drainage systems and dedicated drone delivery lanes.
When 100% of vehicles are self-driving, we won’t need road signage and traffic lights so our streetscapes could be de-cluttered.
The use of shared on-demand vehicles means less demand for parking. Real-time relaying of information directly to AVs means cars will drop passengers off, and then go directly to pick up new customers, or go to a centralized parking and charging location. And if less people own their own cars it means properties won’t need as many garages or driveways.
Technology is progressing at a fast pace and urban designers need to keep up. Police and infrastructure design might be slightly behind the technological advances, it’s time designers started to think about the changes that will come and plan for a future in which the car is no longer.
A version of this story originally appeared in Land8.
Jolma Architects is an award-winning architecture firm based in Finland. It specialises in urban design and business development. Ashley Penn is a landscape architect from the UK who has written extensively on subjects from the natural and built environment, to business ecosystems and fairness in business.