the canada issue

Will self-driving cars change cities?

Eric Miller says there will be a ‘tremendous impact’ by Patchen Barss

Eric Miller_R

Subway, SmartTrack, LRT. Bus lanes, toll booths, HOV.

In Canada, talk about transit infrastructure can feel like listening to a children’s rhyme: politicians and planners make pleasing noises, but their words might as well be a string of nonsense syllables for all their actual impact on painful commutes, packed transit and pervasive gridlock.

Change, though – big, disruptive, non-incremental change – could transform Canada’s cities sooner than most people think.

“There is a gradual rejection of the idea that taxes are bad, public investment is bad, and transit and other infrastructure should just materialize without us having to pay for them,” says Eric Miller, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering who specializes in urban modeling. “I think that is hopeful.”

He also identifies a trend toward active transportation – walking and biking – that city planners should pay heed to. But, he says, change driven by transit investments and smarter planning might well be overtaken by a different kind of disruption: the adoption of self-driving cars.

“Most professionals agree that autonomous vehicles are coming, it’s going to be soon, and it’s going to have a tremendous impact,” he says. “But we don’t know what that impact is going to be.”

Self-driving cars could turn some of today’s hottest debates – subways vs. surface rail; Uber vs. taxis; public transit vs. private vehicles – into historical artifacts.

“Whether you own or don’t own the car might matter much less. There could be a blurring of the public and the private,” says Miller. “In terms of transit, maybe the public agency stops running buses, and instead either runs their own fleet of self-driving cars or partners with private-sector deliverers. We don’t know.”

In urban centres, shared self-driving cars could take the place of taxis, ride-sharing services, buses, and privately owned vehicles. In an ideal scenario, this would both reduce the number of cars on the road, and also free up space currently allocated for parking.

But even as autonomous vehicles have the potential to resolve some current issues, they’ll inevitably also create new ones.

“With self-driving cars, you could foresee scenarios where people live further away from urban centres because they no longer care how long the commute is,” he says. “But if those are still gas and diesel-burning cars, that could be a worse situation.”

Meanwhile, Miller says, some cities are already investigating the potential for self-driving snowplows and garbage trucks. And he is also aware that transportation policy should fit into a larger city-building agenda that serves its residents equitably. Autonomous vehicles could affect not just transportation infrastructure, but also city services, labour relations, gaps between the rich and poor, and a wide range of other municipal issues.

“I think we’ve probably still got a while before totally autonomous driving takes over on city streets,” he says. “But we’ll have semi-autonomous very quickly. And in less complex environments, we’re already starting to see long-haul trucks and vehicles in mines that are completely autonomous.”

While nobody can predict precisely how quickly tech-nology and policy will allow self-driving cars to proliferate, Miller believes Canada’s cities should be preparing now to ensure that change happens beneficially.

“Historically, transit in cities like Toronto has often served the poorest people the worst,” he says. “Regardless of the specific changes we encounter, the big challenge is to build cities that provide equitable opportunity to all residents.”