Advice: Planning for autonomous vehicles

It may be some time before fully autonomous vehicles are a familiar sight on our streets but town centres and housing schemes need to be planned to accommodate them now, reports Ben Kochan.

Driverless pods have been tested in Milton Keynes in preparation for the start of a service later this year. (PIC Oxford Robotics Institute)
Driverless pods have been tested in Milton Keynes in preparation for the start of a service later this year. (PIC Oxford Robotics Institute)

In the next 30 years fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) are likely to come onto our streets, but it is important now that we think about how streets and housing should be designed to accommodate this new form of travel. That’s the advice of Lee Street, head of technology services at consultancy AECOM – Europe. 

The technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated and can be applied to a range of vehicles. Small autonomous pods, as well as buses, are being introduced in stages and could offer a highly flexible form of transport, Street explains. Planners and urban designers now need to think about how it can be integrated into their strategies.

Here are three tips on considering AVs as part of planning and urban design strategies.

1. Integrate AVs as part of the local transport strategy

Vehicles are expected to use the road network more efficiently because the technology allows them to drive closer together, which could help reduce congestion. However, Geoff Burrage, associate at urban planning consultancy Alan Baxter Associates, is concerned that they may encourage greater car use because of the convenience they could offer. "It is important that the introduction of AVs is accompanied by car restraint measures," he says. 

Pricing needs to be set at a level that discourages the shorter journeys that might have been walked or cycled, says Tim Armitage, associate director at engineering and design consultant Arup and project director of the government-funded Autodrive project, which is a consortium of technology businesses, councils and universities, developing self-driving and connected car technologies.

The introduction of AVs should be combined with expanding travel choices, says Chris Hale, enterprise zone manager at Didcot garden town, in Oxfordshire, where around 16,000 new homes are planned over the next 20 years. Hale emphasises the importance of providing travellers with extensive information, "so that they can make informed choices". He points to the proposals in the garden town’s masterplan for a range of travel choices.  A new route - the garden line running through the centre of the town - combines cycle and pedestrian routes, as well as provision for AVs. "The walking and cycling route, which follows part of a disused railway line, will be developed first," says Hale.

It is possible to promote journeys that use a range of transport modes, points out George Economides, team leader for connected automated vehicles at Oxfordshire County Council. "They could be part of a park and ride provision," he adds.

AVs could be used for the last mile of a journey, particularly in lower density suburban areas, says Brian Matthews, head of transport strategy at Milton Keynes Council, where AVs were trialled last year. These are journeys that buses are not good at because of the limited demand, and taxis are not keen on short trips either, he explains. 

2. Ensure use of parking spaces is adaptable

As the use of autonomous cars become the norm, car parking requirements are likely to change, says Alan Baxter Associates’ Burrage. "People will no longer have a reason to own a car. They will buy into a system, which means they have a car at their disposal when needed," he explains. 

Councils need to keep their residential parking standards under review. "Car ownership is already reducing," points out AECOM’s Street. "Car sharing in various forms is set to increase."

Eventually private parking spaces outside houses and large car parks in the centre of towns may not be required. "Valuable development sites could be freed up, but planners need to think about that now, and create more flexible spaces that could be converted for other uses as demand changes," Burrage says. More dropping off places would be required and charging points for vehicles needed, says Arup’s Armitage. But they don’t need to be so centrally located, he adds, and homeowners may rent out their parking spaces for charging the vehicles.

3. Familiarise the public with vehicles

The public needs to get used to the presence of the vehicles, says Milton Keynes Council’s Matthews. Milton Keynes is part of the Autodrive research programme, which has had a demonstration of the pods in progress around the city centre. This was in preparation for the introduction of 40 vehicles that will run between the city’s mainline station and the city centre, and is due to start later this year. 

The vehicles won’t go at speeds of above 12mph and will travel on the pavement, Matthews explains. 

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