I’ve written before about whether there are environmental benefits to driverless cars or not, which is quite a complicated question. I suspect there’ll be a powerful rebound effect. With the stress of driving gone, and the freedom to do other things during the journey, many people might choose to use the car more rather than less. That rise in demand would take a big chunk out of the many efficiency savings that autonomous vehicles would bring.
However, there are many other benefits. With the focus tending to be on the technology and the advantages for individual travelers, one that doesn’t get mentioned as often is public space. Self-driving cars are less likely to be privately owned and operated, and less likely to spend most of their time parked. That immediately frees up parking spaces, whether in car parks or along the street.
With each car being used more efficiently, there will be fewer of them on the roads as well. And with computers in control, they can optimise speeds, routes and stopping distances in ways that get more vehicles into the same road space. In some places, we might see the gradual reversal of road widening schemes. Fewer lanes would be necessary and again, urban space would be freed up.
Individualistic societies don’t value public space as much as they should, but they offer a huge opportunity to improve people’s everyday lives. Money spent on shared space is democratic and open to everyone, regardless of purchasing power. It creates shared wealth without increasing consumption, the kind of ‘public affluence‘ that I describe in my book. It’s good for our wellbeing and for equality. If driverless cars free up space and we took the opportunity, we could see a new focus on beautiful and high quality public space.
What sort of things might we do with it? The first priority should be active transport, using obsolete lanes to make cycle paths and walking routes. We can use them to add green space to cities, with grass, shrubs and pollinator plants. In busy areas, those spaces can be used for affordable retail spaces, pop-up food stalls or repair workshops. Residential areas could create play spaces for children, gardening and allotments.
The urban planning think tank Blank Space held a competition recently to explore how New York City could adapt and improve with the adoption of driverless cars. The winning entry was ‘The Public Square’, a modular approach to reclaiming street space and rearranging in flexible and creative ways. It’s a great demonstration of the opportunities, whether it’s done with their square modules or not: