It wasn’t until the last two centuries that the advancement in mobility really took off globally. Before then, the mainstay of fast land-based mobility was the horse. If you were lucky, you could afford one; and if you were independently wealthy, you could afford enough of them to pull you by carriage. Most people had but their own two feet to get around on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, the 19th Century saw the introduction of major mobility changes: the locomotive in 1804, the bicycle (lovingly known as the velocipede) in the mid-1800s, and then the first electric streetcars in the 1860s. These were earth-shattering advancements in their own way because they expanded the speed and distance at which people could travel setting the stage for the rapid growth and industrialization of cities like New York, Cleveland, and even Spokane. It was the age of the city.

Meanwhile, the 20th Century took a completely different turn, so to speak, by transitioning to the car economy. Henry Ford’s Model T offered the first real independent alternative to shared modes like locomotives, streetcars, and horse-drawn carriages for mid- to long-distance travel. Not only was it durable and quick, it was relatively affordable to individuals. From there, the car industry grew rapidly and constantly refined its product for the masses. Cities again responded to the new changes that came with the car through the establishment of speed limits, separation of modes in right-of-ways, the institution of laws to impede the rights of pedestrians, and ultimately the decline of other modes. It was the age of the car.

Now, motorized vehicles are taking another big leap with driverless technologies.

There’s a lot to like about these advancements no matter how pro-walk, pro-bike, pro-transit, or pro-urbanist you are. A driverless future promises some really great things: elimination of human fallibility, a lower ratio of private vehicles to people, less emissions, additional street capacity, and reduced costs of vehicles. Stick with me and consider that driverless cars actually have complementary urban benefits to an existing public transportation, walking, and biking system.

Like Uber or Car2Go, a shared driverless car network could provide a means to move many people around independently or together along a shared route. It’s conceivable that as mobile app technologies improve, this capability will be in a wide usage. In fact, Uber is already trying shared rides as part of their service in some markets with relative success. As an outgrowth of the sharing economy, the driverless car network is a natural fit given people’s willingness to not only carpool with co-workers, but couch-surf abroad with people they’ve never met.

Another brilliant aspect of this is that the desire for both redundant numbers of private cars and the storage of them (parking) will dramatically decline as shared driverless cars increase. In Seattle, data from Car2Go alone has shown that thousands of members have ditched their cars entirely. We have every reason to believe that this would hold true for a shared driverless car network. Meanwhile, from a cost standpoint, the absence of direct labor to managing driverless cars (that is, physically driving them) would extend to all sectors of the market that employs driver: transit, logistics, taxis, and more.

But perhaps the most compelling reasons for why driverless cars will be complementary to cities is their safety. People are inherently flawed: they break laws intentionally and unintentionally, they make poor choices like drinking or texting, and occasionally they simply become distracted or incapacitated. In all of these instances, there are chances for tragedy to strike. If programmed correctly, technology can serve the safety of all much better than any one individual can even on their best of days. The typical human flaws are not present in the decision-making and handling of a car operated by a computer. Instead, the car operates by the rules set by the manufacturer, local regulations, and upon the surrounding conditions.

Despite this though, it’s possible that driverless cars will be a victim of their own success. For one, declining vehicle ownership will directly impact the bottomline of car manufacturers and retails. For another, there are still limitations to what driverless cars can do. Like any mode in a system, there is a maximum carrying capacity for it–no matter how efficient it may be. But there are other reasons to give us pause for concern.

Eric Jaffe of CityLab penned an article last week that discussed a fairly dystopic vision for city streets being researched by a group at MIT. Researchers of the project known as “DriveWAVE” want to create fast, signal-free intersections. But, they went about it completely the wrong way by neglecting to consider that people also, you know, don’t always drive. Here’s what Jaffe had to say:

The first thing to notice is how truly terrifying it would be—at least initially—to ride in a driverless car going that fast through an intersection. Seriously: pause the video at 44 seconds and see how narrowly the car turning left avoids being slammed by another going straight. When you ride in a self-driving car, you quickly learn to trust it; in fact, Google has said its early test riders trusted the car too much on highways. But having faith in a computerized intersection overlord to orchestrate so much city traffic at such great speeds will require a steep period of public adjustment.

The second thing to note is far more important: Where are all the pedestrians and bike riders? (Hat tip to Columbia University planning professor David Kingfor bringing this to our attention.) Keep in mind this wasn’t some remote crossing being modeled; it was the intersection of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues in Boston. Here’s the Google Street View, complete with cyclists and walkers:

There’s an obvious reason why an “intelligent intersection” would want to eliminate people crossing on foot or by bike: they’d slow things down. But it would be a huge mistake for cities to undo all the progress being made on human-scale street design just to accommodate a perfect algorithm of car movement. If the result is that driverless cars need to move through cities at sub-optimal speeds, then so be it. We won’t be losing as much productivity to traffic as we do today, anyway.

Perhaps most bizarrely is that the MIT researchers hail from Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the most urban and vibrant places for walking and biking in the Boston area. But maybe the goals the researchers aren’t as charitable as Jaffe conjectures. At best, their model is an algorithm for fast, seamless driverless car travel which could sound attractive to the average driver mired in daily congestion. At worst, there are greater goals of returning us to the same pattern of suburbanization, which has had dire consequences on an incredible range of environmental, social, and economic realms.

It’s doubtful that most cities would succumb to the dystopic future offered by DriveWAVE. In recent decades, there has been a huge resurgence in demand for dense, walkable cities and districts. Fundamentally, people want streets for all purposes: bike lanes, woonerfs, more safe crosswalks, smaller lanes, and even parklets. They aren’t asking for more segregation and less safety brought by the car. But let’s not be naive, there are some places that share the DriveWAVE dream. And for that reason, it’s worth challenging cynical ideas like DriveWAVE before they ever have a chance of hitting our streets.

Still, another thought-provoking point was raised by Tanay Jaipuria who discussed the ethics of driverless cars through the lens of “The Trolley Problem”. Despite all the advancements in mobility technologies, is this the fundamental issue that we face in the future city of driverless cars?

Say a trolley is heading down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks are five people tied down who cannot move. The trolley is headed straight for them, and will kill them. You are standing some distance ahead, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley switches to a different set of tracks, on which there is one person. You have two options:

1. Do nothing, in which case the trolley kills the 5 people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, in which case the trolley changes tracks and kills the one person on the side track.

What should you do?

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.


  1. Great article. It touched on my main question about driverless technology. So traffic moves seemlessly and I get from Fremont to Downtown in no time, but what happens when I get out and want to cross the street?

Comments are closed.