NACTO Releases a Blueprint to Help Us Plan Our Autonomous Future

Your urban guide to the promises and perils of automation

For just over a year, Pittsburgh bicyclists, walkers and drivers have been sharing the road with Autonomous Vehicles, making us quite literally, some of the most experienced people on earth dealing with AVs.

Related: In March 2017, we conducted the first survey of bicyclists on how they feel about sharing the road with AVs.

AV technology has the potential to change the public realm, impact the economy, reduce collisions, and alter our environment like nothing we’ve seen since the invention of the automobile a century ago. Public policy and public perception will play significant roles in how our transportation system will change and what we do with land use after our needs change.

We’ve only just begun to understand this dynamic, and are even further behind on understanding how the rise of AVs will change our built environment. There is little doubt that a reduction in the need for parking, for instance, will open vast stretches of curbside and acres of surface lots and parking garages. But what will happen to that newly available land? Will there be a war for the curbside as AVs line up to drop people off in the middle of brand new bike lanes? Will AVs be used to make it easier to bring people to transit, or will it replace transit? Can we program traffic to travel at 20mph, where the chance of a vehicle killing a pedestrian drops nearly to zero? Will our streets become a wall of AVs with our curbs dedicated to AV loading zones?

It will be up to our city’s planners and leaders to set the policy and design standards to ensure we end up with cities that we want to live in, and not just cities that are designed for the ease of AVs. During the rise of the automobile, we made the mistake of clearcutting our urban environments to best accommodate traveling by car. AVs may provide us with an opportunity to fix these auto-oriented streets, or we could just as easily repeat these mistakes and make the situation worse. Hopefully, we have the courage to choose the path that brings efficiency, sustainability, and equity to our transportation system, and not simply bow to the wishes of an industry, like we did in the past.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials, or NACTO, understands this and has just released a guidebook to help cities navigate this dynamic future. This Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism “is based on the principle of people, showing how to adapt new mobility technologies to our cities, and not the other way around.”

The new guidebook looks to get ahead of the curve, before we make some irreparable design decisions. It walks the reader through some scenarios and potential solutions, as well as guidance on managing the transition. Additionally, it describes some of the opportunities that may arise with the further adoption of AVs.

According to the authors, the “Blueprint is intended to serve as a foundational and aspirational human-oriented vision for the city-a statement and visualization of core principles in an uncertain future shaped by technology.”

There’s a good chance that Pittsburgh will be the testing ground for Autonomous Vehicle inspired urban design, and could very well serve as the model for other cities. In other words, both our good and bad decisions could influence how the rest of the country deals with this disruptive technology.

It’s a lot of pressure. Let’s not mess this up – we only have one chance to get it right, at least for the next century.

Please check out the Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism.


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