Cities Are Trying—Again—to Plan for Autonomous Vehicles

On the one hand, autonomous vehicles offer an excellent opportunity to rethink how American cities operate, down to each lane line, crosswalk, and curb. Two years ago, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, representing 81 North American cities, published its first planning guide to self-driving vehicles , highlighting the possibilities. If everyone moves around on electric-powered transit and robotaxis, no one needs to own a car. No one needs to park a car.

So that first version outlined an elegant—albeit fanciful—vision of the cities of the future. Parks where there once were paint lines and parking meters. Residential streets with plenty of green space, with road access limited to the occasional delivery driver. More room for public transit than personal cars.

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In 2019, the dream is still alive. But then there’s that other hand: If cities screw up the transition to AVs, they’ll end up with streets clogged with traffic, smogged with emissions, and little room for people to walk, bike, and scoot.

So NACTO is publishing this week a second version of the AV planning guide, one that takes a more skeptical approach to the project. After years of tensions with Silicon Valley-powered transportation companies like Uber, Lyft, and Bird, which have created traffic, pulled some riders off struggling public transit, and challenged existing infrastructure and regulations, cities are wary of those promoting new transportation services. The new blueprint is a detailed 131-page guide to what some of the most influential cities in the country believe is the best way to prep for AVs—even if no one is quite sure when the tech will arrive.
“There are good partners out there, but I don't think it’s a bad thing for cities to be cautious,” says Kate Fillin-Yeh, who helped write the guide and is NACTO’s director of strategy. A task force of officials from 14 cities, including Boston, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Vancouver, also helped create the updated blueprint.

Illustration: National Association of City Transportation Officials
To that end, this plan is much more specific about the sorts of policy calls cities should make to actually get that parks-instead-of-parking-lots future. It talks road pricing, the controversial policy that charges drivers to enter certain parts of a city in certain times of day. (In London, a cordon-based charging scheme that forces drivers to shell out big bucks for entering the city center has reduced local emissions.) Without a plan to charge AVs for the roads they use, the guide suggests, more people might use them—bad for traffic, bad for the environment, bad for the city.