Autonomous Cars Strengthen the Case for Dedicated Bus and Bike Lanes

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Sandy Smith reads my long-form piece at Forefront on autonomous cars:

As Jon Geeting notes in Next City “Forefront” feature story, driverless – or more accurately, self-driving – cars offer “the chance to dramatically reshape the relationship between public space and the car.”

Even now, well before cars that could drive themselves without human intervention become practical, younger Americans are driving less and eschewing car ownership, presaging a future where gripes over parking of the kind that roil neighborhoods throughout Greater Center City become, if not a thing of the past, far less frequent because fewer cars will be on the road. But fleets of on-demand self-driving cars roaming city streets – the ultimate in car sharing – could render parking spaces all but moot.

Imagine what that might mean for our cityscapes. Narrower streets, wider sidewalks, few if any curb cuts, and maybe, just maybe, communities where older residents need not surrender their independence.

Now imagine what that might mean for our public transit systems.

Mass transit remains the best means of getting large numbers of people into, around and out of dense urban districts, but driverless cars could prove so cheap to use that all but the poorest might choose to use them for even the journey to and from work, mass transit’s bread and butter. Not only would that amplify the stigma many still attach to bus riders, it could leave transit systems without enough riders to justify their extensive operations.

As Jarrett Walker notes though, mass transit is still going to remain the best way to move large numbers of people through narrow streets. The one thing we’re not making more of in cities is space on the street. So fixed guideway transit, mostly rail, will still make sense because of the space constraints. We might have fewer total cars (the Eno Center thinks a single shared AV could replace between 9-13 personal cars without sacrificing mobility) but more of them will be in motion at any given time, rather than staying parked for 23 hours a day on average as is currently the case.

So we can eventually turn more curb parking lanes into travel lanes, but for who? Do the AVs get that space, or should it go to dedicated lanes for buses and bikes, or wider sidewalks for pedestrians? There’s a strong case for painting dedicated bus and bike lanes, and pedestrian spaces now, before the drone taxis eat up every free inch of street space in the future. We can make the choice to apportion the street space to make buses the most convenient way to move large numbers of people. We have that choice today in our human-piloted car world, and we’ll still have it in autonomous car world.

This entry was posted in Land Use, Transportation.

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