Do Autonomous Vehicles Have a Place in Walkable Cities?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of our cities, or to decarbonizing transportation.

America’s cities face a variety of challenges to their long-term health. Some are in the early stages of recovery from a terrible wasting disease, while others suffer from intense growing pains. Not a few suffer from mental and physical health ailments. And all are beginning to run a fever that, if left unchecked, could prove life-threatening.

Our recent report, A New Way Forward, suggested that if we want to heal our cities while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we first need to understand the unique needs of each patient. The policy prescription that works best for one city may not be the optimal treatment for another city with different symptoms or a different medical history.

The need for integrated, context-sensitive solutions to reduce transportation’s contribution to climate change was driven home to me last week at a forum on autonomous vehicles sponsored by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA). We’ve been pleased to partner with T4MA in its work on innovative mobility, which has brought together a range of organizations and stakeholders to learn about new mobility technologies and services and develop an appropriate public policy strategy to maximize their societal benefits.

The forum took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge – a location that is significant not just for its proximity to some of the world’s leading innovators in vehicle autonomy, but also for its presence in a community whose modern history was defined by a successful revolt against the proposed Inner Belt highway during the 1950s and 1960s, a project that would have cut the community in two.

Mural commemorating fight against Inner Belt expressway. Credit: City of Cambridge

Having been victimized by the utopian dreams of automobile-obsessed planners and technologists within living memory, and having fought for decades to create a community where multiple modes of low-carbon travel are possible, Cantabrigians are understandably skeptical of the notion that a new, advanced form of motor vehicle might be the solution to urban sustainability.

As I wrote in a post at Meeting of the Minds a few weeks ago, many of the sustainability, safety and quality of life benefits that can be obtained with autonomous vehicles can also be obtained without them. Cambridge, for example, has reduced the share of its residents commuting to work by car from 45% in 1990 to 30% in 2014, in part through a strong transportation demand management program and efforts to improve conditions for people traveling on bikes or on foot.

Moreover, as we wrote on our own blog several months ago, autonomous vehicles of any size or configuration are likely to be unable to move large numbers of people through dense urban areas with the same limited impact and high efficiency as public transportation.

But there are ways in which autonomous vehicle technologies might play a role in transitioning to low-carbon transportation, even in places where the car is not king. MIT professors Christopher Zegras and Kent Larson, speaking at the forum, reinforced the notion that “autonomous vehicle” does not necessarily mean “autonomous car.” Larson showed video demonstrations of an array of light, low-speed, electric vehicles for personal transportation or package delivery in urban areas, vehicles he described as closer in spirit to a baby buggy than a full-sized car.

In A New Way Forward, we hypothesized that highly dense cities might seek to limit the presence of full-sized private vehicles – including autonomous cars – in downtown areas to support more intense and humane urban development, while at the same time providing space on streets for a variety of small, low-speed vehicles traveling no faster than a bike. One can imagine such vehicles playing a key supporting role in a transportation system built around transit, biking and walking, with only a fraction of the negative impacts of conventional cars.

Similarly, buses and trains can also benefit from automation – enabling new forms of transit service and making existing services more efficient and cost-effective.

Autonomous vehicle technology can be a tool for building better, more sustainable communities – just like public transportation, bikes, pricing or compact land uses – if it is used appropriately, and in ways that are consistent with a community’s aspirations. And in the parts of America that are not walkable or transit-oriented and do not aspire to be, shared, electric and autonomous vehicles that look more like today’s cars may prove to be a powerful and necessary tool for achieving America’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of our cities, or to decarbonizing transportation. Another panelist at the MIT forum, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, said of his city that “We know who we are and we know what we want to be when we grow up.” That type of self-assurance has underpinned successful efforts by communities around the country to block destructive freeways, create safer streets for people on foot or on bike, and invest in public transportation for decades, even in the face of tremendous hurdles created by America’s auto-centric transportation policies. Self-assurance and clarity of vision will be even more important in the years to come as cities deal with rapid technological advancement, changing socioeconomics, shifting economic sands, and the increasingly urgent imperative presented by climate change.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.