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Streets of the Future
How Driverless Cars May Affect City Planning

Streets of the Future

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the ways people interact with city streets. With fewer humans behind the wheel on the road, angry reactions like speeding and tailgating and slow reaction times that cause chains of sudden stops can be avoided, creating a safer, more efficient rate of traffic.

Autonomous vehicles, often called driverless or self-driving cars, have been a part of the human imagination for years, often popping up in films and books in which characters think nothing of traveling to Mars for a day trip or leaning on the aid of robot butlers. While space travel may yet be a far-off idea for the average person, autonomous vehicles of varying degree have been making small appearances for years and are rapidly becoming more visible on city streets today.

Since the mid-2000s, automotive companies have been designing autonomous qualities into their technology. Citroen introduced its Lane Departure Warning system, a feature that causes the driver's seat to vibrate when the car detects a drift out of the lane, in 2006 along with a similar vibration feature triggered when a frontal collision threat is detected. Since then, several different features, from automatic parallel parking to wrong-way driving detection, have been implemented in many cars currently available for purchase.
According to the accepted scale of autonomous vehicles from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) that ranges from 0-5, cars ranked at 0-2 use human drivers to monitor the driving environment, and those ranked at 3-5 use automotive driving systems to monitor the driving environment. Most cars currently seen on the road are at a 1 (Driver Assistance) or a 2 (Partial Automation). However, the cars that rank at a 5 (Full Automation) are the ones most on people's minds, including those concerned with how driverless cars might affect city planning and street design.

The Fails Management Institute (FMI) in a September 2016 report shared expectations for the disruption of current highway and street designs, claiming that streets, sidewalks and curbs would all need to change in the face of the push for driverless cars. John "Jay" Bowman estimated that the continued introduction of autonomous vehicles and the gradual elimination of driver-monitored cars would result in a 25 percent reduction of lane width in freeways leading to a 50 percent increase in road capacity. Because autonomous vehicles are designed to be able to connect with other cars near them, they can all begin to accelerate and decelerate at the same time, halting the normal buildup traffic and making commutes faster and simpler. Perhaps due to advanced programming in cars that require no human drivers to see in order to steer, lighting, signage and railways could be largely eliminated from the design of car-heavy areas like highways.

Streets of the Future

1: Pedestrian crossings should be made short and safe. 2: Sidewalk areas could be made larger to contain more space for people and structures. 3: Bike lanes would need to be completely separate from vehicle lanes in order to protect human riders. Photo: NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism

Streets of the Future

Advancement in autonomous automotive technology may usher in innovative ways to create a better environment on city streets, allowing bigger and safer spaces for a diverse group of people, slower speeds for vehicles and more accessibility for public transit systems. Photo: NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism

Thinner lanes on highways call into question the place of large trucks that would not be able to fit on redesigned streets. These vehicles would need a specific venue for transporting large items and materials across the country. This kind of exclusive, truck-only avenue would perhaps streamline transportation systems, causing trucks to reach their destinations more quickly without smaller vehicles to impede their progress. Regardless, this aspect of street transportation would need to be considered alongside other issues surrounding more compact, passenger-oriented cars.

City Streets
Heavily peopled areas, such as downtown city streets, may be redesigned with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind rather than autonomous cars, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). The organization advises street designers to be people-focused when planning streets around the idea of driverless cars, stating that "The future street is a place for people," in its 2017 Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism. The guide highlights a few items to keep in mind when designing a downtown street in the age of self-driving cars. First, NACTO advises street designers to focus on creating safe and short crossings for pedestrians. With smaller lanes, lighter traffic and self-stopping cars that can sense when a pedestrian is in the road, crossing the street would be made safer and could be made simpler by eliminating curbs and lowering sidewalks to be flush with the streets.

Another aspect of streetscape design that would shift with the increase of autonomous vehicles is parking. According to, driverless cars can park themselves, meaning that they can drop off passengers at downtown locations and guide themselves to the nearest parking lots or structures. This eliminates the need for street parking or cramped parking lots between buildings in cities. Therefore, areas originally designated for street parking could be used to create wider pedestrian areas or adapted into valet-style areas for passenger drop off and pick up. Small parking lots that are squeezed into alleyways or spaces between businesses could be transformed into public seating areas or plots for street cafes, again focusing on the human aspect of downtown streets.

Streets of the Future

Autonomous cars are designed to contain sensors that allow the vehicle to receive information from the objects around it and adjust its speed and distance from those objects for safety purposes. When around other self-driving cars, these sensors can communicate, allowing one vehicle to respond to information received from another.

Streets of the Future

Wider sidewalks could serve different purposes at different times of day. In this rendering, during the afternoon, half of the sidewalk is devoted to a farmers or vendors market, with food trucks parked on the walkway. However, there is still plenty of space devoted specifically to pedestrians walking by. This design could give a community the opportunity to hold events without completely blocking all traffic from the street, as is traditionally seen with street markets and other similar festivities. Photo: NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism

Bicyclists would have to be taken into account while designing these future streets. Because humans will still control bikes, they would not be able to communicate with vehicles around them, making it impossible for bicyclists to follow the same standard of simultaneous acceleration or instant deceleration in order to avoid a collision. Therefore, NACTO suggests designing downtown streets with fully separate zones for bicycles, protecting them from becoming entangled with the driverless cars.

Adaptation of streetscape design to fit autonomous vehicles should begin immediately, as technological advancement in the automotive industry is steadily progressing. City planners should keep these ideas in mind for when autonomous vehicles become more accepted into everyday society. Already Amazon is using a combination of driverless cars and drones to deliver packages to people's doors. Likely in the next ten or twenty years, the majority of commuters will make their ways to work in some type of autonomous vehicle, and street design can shift to reflect that change.

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August 20, 2019, 8:44 pm PDT

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