This paper identifies a sometimes over-optimistic trend in thinking about a future with autonomous vehicles (AVs). These are often depicted as robot-chauffeured cars providing low-cost, effortless mobility powered by renewable energy, driving safely down narrow lanes with ample space for cyclists and pedestrians.
There are potential dangers in this uncritical approach: the ease and lower costs associated with AVs may result in an increase in the distance travelled by low-occupancy vehicles, exacerbating urban sprawl, encouraging further car-dependence, crowding out public transport, cycling and walking and potentially even increasing emissions. Moreover, the widespread benefits of narrow roadways are unlikely to arise until manually controlled cars are phased out – improbable for decades, if ever – and there are complex issues over the transition between these two phases.
In light of these risks, this paper advocates a careful use of planning and public policy. It envisions a more sustainable trajectory through the continued prioritisation of compact, mixed-use and walkable neighbourhoods and the promotion of active and public transport. The role of AVs in this future is characterised by responsible use and ride sharing, which may be achieved through policies such as road user charges, infrastructure restrictions and transportation demand management. Although this paper is written from a US perspective, its fundamental arguments apply to many cities and countries around the world. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author.