Cities Should Plan For Driverless Technology Now, Experts Urge

Jul 12, 2016

Experts on a panel convened by the Regional Transportation Alliance of Southwestern Pennsylvania answer audience questions during a public forum at Kelly Strahorn Theater in East Liberty on Monday, July 11, 2016. About 90 people attended.
Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA

Transportation experts are urging elected officials nationwide to embrace the rise of driverless vehicle technology as an opportunity to improve city street grids.

Speakers at a forum in East Liberty Monday focused on city planning, equating the importance of driverless cars with that of the steam engine, electric grid and elevator, saying the technology would be commonplace within 50 years.

While driverless technology could provide much-needed mobility options for older Americans and those with disabilities over the coming decades, experts said some problems will inevitably remain. They said traffic and the nation’s aging infrastructure will still need massive investments to maintain. 

Joe McAndrew, policy director of the nonprofit group Transportation for America, said the rise of driverless technology gives city leaders the chance to rectify some past transportation planning decisions that have proven unsuccessful.

“Talking about an equitable, affordable, accessible city," McAndrews said. "If we go ahead and plan for it and think about it in a holistic way, the technology’s out there that can go ahead and help provide access to opportunity that didn’t exist for folks for a long time, due to bad, poor investment and planning decisions."

Business and policy leaders can’t afford to wait and see how driverless technology changes city streets, said Marshall Brown, an urban designer with the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Driverless City Project.

“We are really looking at how we get beyond technological determinism, and stop waiting around for an answer to the question of what driverless technology will do to our cities," Brown said, "and start thinking about, ‘What kind of urban space do we want 30 years, 40 years in the future? And how do we leverage the technology to get there?’”

Brown said driverless technology has the potential to allow city leaders to cut down on the surface area used for parking and roadways, freeing up space for new developments.

Roger Cohen, policy director at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said he thinks freight trucking will be the first industry to fully embrace driverless technology.

“The reason I think that goods movement is such a high-opportunity target for development and deployment is that’s where you can monetize it,” Cohen said.

Cohen noted that officials should check to see whether the projects they've included in long-term transportation plans would be adaptable to accommodate self-driving cars.

The panel was convened by the Regional Transportation Alliance of Southwestern Pennsylvania as it prepares a to give elected officials formal recommendations on driverless vehicle policy changes by the end of the year. PennDOT has its own task force studying the issue as well, which Cohen co-chairs.

Brown said the time is now for officials to start planning for driverless vehicles.

“It’s not about waiting for some tipping point," Brown said. "We need to decide already what kind of streets we want to have, because they’re not good now.”