Urban planners talk about two visions of the future city: heaven and hell. Hell, in case it’s not clear, is bad—cities built for technologies, big companies, and vehicles instead of the humans who actually live in them. And hell, in some ways, is here. Today’s US cities are dominated by highways there were built by razing residential neighborhoods. Few sidewalks and fewer bike lanes. It’s all managed by public policies that incentivize commuting in your car. Alone. Trapped in traffic.
This special hell we’ve created for ourselves has tech companies and visionaries proposing heavenly ideals for our earthly woes. Uber and Alphabet want to unleash fleets of unmanned flying cars and drones upon the world. Elon Musk wants to tunnel beneath cities and build fast-moving hyperloops. And then there’s the dizzying spiderweb of companies racing to build autonomous vehicles to unshackle our ankles from the gas pedal.
But if humans no longer have to spend time piloting vehicles through traffic, what happens to cities? And what if autonomous vehicles actually make things worse? Yes, traveling will be easier, but that means everyone—even those without drivers licenses—will be able to do it. Maybe Americans will live farther apart, extending their commutes—no harm done when you can catch up with your shows instead of drive, right? The result could be a lot more trips and a lot more traffic. It would seem the old adage is true: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Which means cities need to start thinking now about how to incorporate AVs into future planning. To that end, on Monday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an international, 60-city organization of very serious transportation planners and engineers, published its own vision of the Promised Land, a 50-page blueprint outlining how to account for our autonomous future and build in flexible options that could result in less traffic for everyone, not just those riding on four wheels. “We don’t just need new software running on our streets—we need to update the hardware of the streets themselves,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation head in New York City during the Bloomberg administration who now serves on the board for NACTO. “That’s why we need a new roadmap that puts humans first.”
In the bumptious and highly detail-oriented world of transportation planning, NACTO is known for its street design guides, research-backed resources that teach cities exactly how to structure road networks for faster, more efficient, more equitable transportation systems. If you’re looking to route a new bus line, or design a one-way street that can accommodate a fast-moving tram, or create street signs that are legible and understandable, NACTO has recommendations for you. In other words: This is very nuanced, very specific transportation stuff.
This blueprint, however, is a little more fanciful, at least as far as engineering plans go. Autonomous vehicles are still in their snotty adolescence, and while professional prognosticators say you may start to see some experimental self-driving cars on a street near you in the next few years, the average American city won’t be dominated by these robot things for at least another two decades.
But transportation planners say it’s not too early to start thinking about building cities for autonomous vehicles. “It’s not just about predicting what the future will be, but about shaping it into the future we want to be,” Sadik-Khan says. That’s why NACTO says it will be updating this digital blueprint constantly.
So what does transit heaven look like? In the future, the transportation planners suggest, vehicle lanes can be a lot thinner. Machines, after all, should be better at driving straight—and less distracted by Snapchat—than their human counterparts. That means more room in major boulevards for walking, biking, even loitering. Tiny parks might exist where parking meters once lived—no need to park self-driving taxis owned by companies, not individual drivers. In fact, vehicles might not even have their own dedicated spaces at all. “Flex zones” could be turned over to different services and vehicles for different times of day. During rush hour, there could be more lanes open to vehicles. During heavy delivery hours, there could be curb space dedicated to Amazon delivery vans (or landing delivery drones). At night, street space next to bars could be dedicated to picking up and dropping off carousers from driverless taxicabs.
“The blueprint is for building the safer future streets that cities need, where speeding is no longer an option, where cars are designed to yield and stop for pedestrians and bicyclists by default, and where people are free to cross the streets where it makes sense, rather than trek a mile to the nearest stoplight,” says Mollie Pelon, who oversees NACTO’s technology and city transportation program. Ignore the naysayers, these optimistic planners say. Autonomous vehicles don’t have to destroy the American city—they’re a shiny opportunity to rebuild it for the better. Cities just need to get to work. Right now.