Active Transportation

Exploring the Implications of Autonomy for All

In June, Jeremy Finkleman will be presenting on the challenges and possible implications self driving cars may present at the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers (CITE) Annual Conference in Edmonton. To help inform his presentation, he has developed an online survey to collect data on people’s perceptions of how this technology may impact their lives. If you’d like to participate in this 10 minute survey, please click HERE. All participants who wish to share their contact details will be entered into a draw for one of four (4) Visa gift cards valued between $50 and $250 CAD (Terms and Conditions apply).

Jeremy Finkleman, Transportation Planner

There has been an increasing number of conversations in the past few years focused on autonomous vehicles (self driving cars) and what their integration into modern society will look like. For Transportation Planner Jeremy Finkleman, his interest and curiousity in the subject has led him to participating in a number of panels and discussions on the topic of self driving cars that he is now looking beyond the fascination in the technology to find out just what their prevalence will mean for cities around the world.

“What’s likely ahead of us is a paradigmatic change in transportation systems as we know them, a transportation revolution,” he says. Jeremy likens the eventual entry of self driving vehicles into daily life as equal to the introduction first of streetcars and followed by private automobiles around the turn of the 20th Century. Each transportation revolution in their own right, both enables the push outwards of urban areas and the distances people are able to travel, increasing people’s ease of movement like never before. “Each revolution completely changed the way we live and move,” Jeremy explains. “And at the base of all this is the knowledge that people generally are only willing to travel distances that are within 20- to 30-minutes.”

The infrastructure revolution that started in the 1940s, as freeways became increasingly common throughout most of the western world, further pushed those boundaries as people were able to travel longer distances at higher speed. With the addition of self driving technology, those boundaries stand to be pushed even further, and the implications of that is what both concerns and fascinates Jeremy.

“For previous revolutions, the technology ran relatively unchecked,” Jeremy reflects. “Some cities like Vancouver were successful in changing their course, but we’ve been playing catch-up since the 1980s.” He points out that because so much ambiguity exists around the possible impacts of self driving cars, many cities and regions are woefully unprepared for that future. But that does not mean leaders and planners should sit back and see what happens. “We have this incredible power of hindsight to look at the mistakes of the last 100 years, and address the challenges proactively instead of reactively.”

Credit: iStock

To be proactive, it’s valuable to understand some of the changes self driving cars will represent, particularly on our transportation network. Presuming the technology is safe, it will dramatically increase people’s mobility, particular for those with limited mobility or those that are not able to drive themselves (minors and seniors). “This is good at an individual or family level, but the societal impacts could mean more people moving around in vehicles on a network that has a finite amount of space,” Jeremy reveals. Thinking of today’s large cities, the capacity for more cars is simply not available. Add to that the possibility of vehicles traveling along streets unoccupied while someone shops in order to avoid parking charges, and the issue of space becomes a greater concern.

Jeremy notes that public transportation authorities need to be particularly proactive in their approach to autonomous technology because their market is dependent on those people for whom driving is not an option. Access to self driving vehicles provides a whole new avenue for travel for them, and could fundamentally erode the feasibility of public transit as people choose individual, “private” vehicles as an alternative.

Beyond the transportation network, there are also implications for land-use planning. Autonomous technology virtually eliminates transportation “dead time”, allowing people to work, connect with peers, and even sleep on any given journey. “In this scenario, the rationale of the 20- to 30-minute maximum is blown away,” he explains. “In areas where the cost of living is so high, folks may begin to consider living further and further away from work, schools, etcetera, traveling upwards of 60-minutes.” This presents an opportunity for those households struggling to meet the high cost of more central living, however this also creates a stronger push for ex-urbanization, something many municipalities have been actively trying to combat for over a decade.

Credit: iStock

That is not to say that the technology doesn’t also present opportunities. Many, including Jeremy, see immense possibilities in marrying the technology with the sharing economy, and the significant implications this could have on parking–particularly the amount of space currently dedicated to the storage of vehicles. Modelling studies in the United States and Europe have determined that 1 out of 10 vehicles on the road at any time is actually needed to supply the same level of transportation we enjoy today. In a sharing model, this number drops even further. “Imagine a reality where 9 out of 10 cars don’t need to be there,” he challenges, “and the effect that will have on the availability of space in street design and land use.”

There are so many factors that cities and regions need to consider as the future of self driving vehicles gets increasingly closer to being our new reality. For this reason, Jeremy is actively seeking out information to better inform a proactive approach. “This transportation revolution will happen in our lifetime, and is going to turn our notions of transportation and land-use planning on their heads.” He reflects on the strides that have been made to reverse the damage done in previous decades, with the creation of comprehensive community plans that place focus on livability and people-oriented communities. “It’s about taking those visions and thinking about what policies need to be in place to adapt to this new technology, while we keep moving forward rather than falling into past traps.”

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