The large-scale introduction of self-driving vehicles will have major impacts on our urban centres. There is no debate over whether autonomous vehicles will be transformational. However, what their impact will be on congestion remains to be seen.

One argument is that cars that can drive themselves will ultimately mean more vehicles on our streets, causing increased congestion and more traffic that has to be managed. The opposing argument is that the technology will help decrease the number of vehicles on our roads, enabling cities to redesign spaces that cars no longer need for new purposes.

The experts who expect the arrival of self-driving vehicles to ultimately reduce the number of cars on our streets see it as an opportunity to transform our urban landscapes. Self-driving cars could improve the “efficiency” of our existing roads through the use of real-time communication and platooning, enabling autonomous vehicles to travel closer together, in narrower lanes.

The result would be that existing streets could handle greater volumes of cars, in many cases reducing the need to build new roads.

Redesigning Urban Spaces

The focus in the past has all been on the automobile, but now infrastructure expansion and improvement is becoming more inclusive. The global reality is that reducing the number of cars on our streets isn’t an option yet. Innovations, like the deployment of autonomous vehicles, must form part of the solution.

“We know that we must reduce the number of cars in our cities, but the question is how we do that,” says Timothy Papandreou, from Google X, formerly Director, Office of Innovation at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). He thinks that cities must be willing to establish flexible frameworks that will allow private sector innovators to bring solutions to the table. Autonomous vehicles will be one eventual option, but he insists that other solutions must also be considered and that cities must adequately prepare.