Starting from Scratch
With all the problems of adapting existing infrastructure for compatibility with autonomous vehicles, wouldn't it be nice to be able to start from scratch and design cities from the ground up with AVs in mind? However exciting this would be, I can't envision tearing down and completely redeveloping the cities we live in today. It's conceivable enough that bite-sized models of cities can be constructed as testing grounds to simulate real existing cities, but what about new urban communities people can actually live in? I was surprised to learn of the scale of new cities that are still under development today.
One such city is Babcock Ranch, Florida. Babcock Ranch was planned to take full advantage of future technologies such as complete solar power dependence and (of course) self-driving cars. What's astonishing is the ease of development they are facing in this endeavor—since they are building from scratch they face no legacy issues from existing infrastructure, and since they are privately owned and controlled they face no bureaucracy issues.
The implications of these factors are also very interesting to consider and eliminate many of the traditional concerns of urban AV deployment. Babcock Ranch reserves the ability to restrict private car traffic which would prevent predicted conflicts, and limit coordination to the much more manageable use case of cyclists and pedestrians. Since people are buying in to this new community, they know what they're signing up for and there won't be a pubilc resistance to restricting car use. In fact, this quality might actually be a draw for the hipster types attracted to new age exclusive urban development!
Other implications include the ability to easily change the city around them as the technology catches on, redeveloping parking lots into parks with no opposition. It is also intended to be a proving ground for new concepts like automated package delivery within the city. All of this and more made possible by starting from scratch and designing for change.
“What we’re hoping people realize when they move to Babcock Ranch is very quickly they’re only going to need one car, and then our ultimate goal is for them to realize they don’t need any cars. Think about what that means from a perspective of the home buyer–they now have a two-car garage that could be used for something else.” - Syd Kitson, CEO of the company developing Babcock Ranch
Side Note: Another hidden benefit of forward-thinking urban planning: in contrast to the nearby planned city of Cape Coral which was built in the late 1950s, Babcock Ranch survived recent Hurricane Irma essentially unscathed.
Even though our minds are often closed to consider only the cities we already inhabit today, there are hundreds of new cities currently under development (including many in Florida and California) with the opportunity to deploy revolutionary designs far sooner than existing cities ever could. According to analysis by the New Cities Foundation one of the most important factors in urban design is the ability to adapt to new technologies and forms of transportation. It's becoming increasingly clear that self-driving cars will be the largest and most important societal change to come in the near future, and I would strongly encourage developers of emerging communities to seize the opportunity and plan with AVs in mind.
As many different ideas about AV infrastructure as there are, the National Association of City Transportation Officials released the comprehensive Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism this week, and it might just become a gold standard for urban planners to reference in this scenario.
For the sake of actually seeing new infrastructure in action, and for having a proof of concept before we remodel existing cities, we should look to the cities being built from scratch for inspiration and guidance. At the beginning they will likely be forced to be self-contained, but over time they have the potential to integrate with surrounding cities and infrastructure to drive the self-driving revolution.