The fact that Uber would allow a driverless car onto the road without the ability to see a pedestrian clearly in its path is a sign that the technology is not ready to be operated on our streets. But when the technology is ready, autonomous vehicle technology could finally put a halt to the bloody crashes that injure 30 and kill 8 people every single day in California. That's a development that we'd certainly welcome!
But safety is not the only thing to consider as robotic cars take over our streets, because the injuries that cars inflict on society are also unacceptable if we want communities that are equitable, prosperous, and healthy.
We advocate for bikes not because we love bicycling, but because we love what bicycling does for our communities. Bicycles provide affordable mobility. Bicycles promote the health and happiness of their riders. They are quiet, safe, and gentle. A community where bicycling is prevalent is a community where less space is sacrificed to parking and more is available for parks and housing, bringing costs down and boosting happiness and health. It’s a place where people walk, meet each other, and enjoy the spontaneous and comfortable interactions that psychologists know are important to our happiness. It’s not a place crowded with computer-driven cars driving us around, but computer-driven cars could help make it the kind of place we love.
The advent of autonomous vehicles is going to transform transportation at least as profoundly as the arrival of the automobile more than a century ago. It could be a disaster, if not done thoughtfully. Easier automobile transportation could increase traffic, pull resources and riders away from public transit, and threaten the few spaces we’ve managed to carve out for walking and biking. Those who can afford it might love it, but for many of us it’s not a hopeful future.
On the other hand, a new era of affordable shared rides and vastly more efficient public transit could drastically reduce car traffic. It could mean affordable housing where garages once stood and pleasant tree-lined bike paths in place of what are now parking lanes.
Which direction we go is our choice. We recommend the following policies, listed in order of priority, to ensure that this upheaval serves to create more equitable and prosperous communities where bicycling enables people to live more healthy and joyful lives.
1. Ensure that nearly all autonomous vehicles are parts of fleets summoned and used as vehicles for shared rides. A recent UC-Davis study commissioned by Caltrans looked at the “future of transportation” and concluded that this is the single most important factor in determining whether autonomous vehicles are beneficial or detrimental. According to another study by Fehr & Peers, it won’t be enough if half of all such trips are shared. For us to gain the benefit, almost all trips will have to be shared rides. It’s not difficult, technologically, especially if accomplished in tandem with our second recommendation.
2. Fully integrate these fleets with public transit. We know from New York City subway crowds that people will use transit if it’s the fastest and most efficient way to travel. With a fleet of computer-controlled cars, vans, buses, and trains, all working together off of a single integrated database of trip requests, most trips could be served with nearly door-to-door service that would remodel surface public transit into a service for almost everybody.
As a thought exercise, check out this quick hypothetical comparison of projected prices for a passenger requesting a ride for a 5-mile trip on a weekday evening. Naturally, we included a reminder to the passenger that they could ride a bike, offered a link to a map of safe routes, and even a $1 credit to their public transit account if they ride instead of take a vehicle at peak hour.
3. Control AV travel strictly to support public priorities. Independent from the emotions of entitled human drivers, computer-driven cars could be programmed to be great neighbors! They can be limited to 20 mph on quiet residential streets. They can be programmed to avoid designated bike boulevards and to never block the bike lane. For that matter, they can be programmed to avoid certain blocks if children have claimed it for an impromptu soccer or basketball game on the street. The possibilities for reclaiming public space for the public are amazing if we insist on controlling AV fleets so that they serve public purposes.
4. Immediately redesign the streets to take advantage of the opportunity. This might be a first priority, since we can do it now without autonomous vehicles, but it will be much easier if the first three policies are in place. Design bike-friendly curbside locations for passenger pickup and dropoff, and ban parking from curbs everywhere else in order to free up space for new bikeways.
5. Make them all electric. The clean air and quiet streets of our new transportation era might surprise us all.
So Are Autonomous Vehicles Ready For California's Roads?
Computer-driven cars are not ready yet, but they will be soon, and sooner than most people think. If we’re not ready with policy controls, the new era will be much like the old era: a safer version of an inequitable, expensive, and unhealthy system. On the other hand, if we treat fleets of autonomous vehicles as a public utility, or as a regulated monopoly private utility, our communities could easily become the equitable bike paradise we’ve long envisioned. People, get ready.