Autonomous Vehicles, Transit, The City and Urban Geography. An Urban Geographer’s Look

AV’s and their consequences on the Urban Geography environment


There has been a lot of chatter around how Autonomous Vehicles could help out congested cities. This concept needs a lot of unpacking before policy makers at Local and Central Government engage in a path that does an urban environment more harm than good.

First of all we need to unpack what Autonomous Vehicles or AV’s are. Technically they can be a car, truck, bus or train that runs without the need for a driver. However, more commonly they are the colloquial term for a driverless car and maybe a driverless bus. Autonomous Vehicles have been with us for a while in the form of driverless passenger trains such as Vancouver’s Sky Train so the technology is not that new.

That said there are two ways we go can with Autonomous Vehicles and the City:

  • Autonomous Vehicles (cars and maybe the bus) are the silver bullet in fixing congestion in a city (often called the Tech Bro solution)
  • Autonomous Vehicles (cars, busses, service trucks and trains) form part of the suite of tools and systems to help a city move more efficiently (and open up new/better urban development opportunities)


Dale Bracewell -Manager, Transportation Planning – Engineering Services for the City of Vancouver presented a presentation last week on the role AV’s could play in an urban environment.

First though this from the presentation:

Car is a car no matter what
Source: Dale Bracewell – City of Vancouver


So no matter what the car, the car is that a car – the most inefficient transport mode of moving people around.


Transport Movements per hour
Source: Dale Bracewell – City of Vancouver


The presentation:

Vancouver and AVs with transit


In short if you are looking for a Tech Bro solution you are barking up the wrong urban tree.


If you are however, looking at Autonomous Vehicles (car, bus and train) as part of a wider suite of options for a City then you are barking up the correct urban tree. Driverless trains are already around and for Auckland would be great for our new Light Rail system (both Airport Lines and the North Western LRT) as you can get 3-minute head way between services more easily than a system with drivers on board. Driverless busses are being trialled at the moment in Singapore with full rollout from around 2020 on wards. I can think of places where driverless busses would work such as Botany to Panmure along the South Eastern Busway and even the Northern Busway until it was converted to Light Rail.


Driverless cars will not be around mainstream in New Zealand for another 30 years according to a research paper by MRCagney:




Autonomous Vehicles Research Report

Mon, December 4, 2017  | 

Autonomous vehicles not the cure all for congestion – our new report finds.


We often get caught up in the excitement about autonomous vehicles, but we need to remain objective and consider what Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) should mean for transport and land use planning.

Without applying this ‘critical lens’, and planning for the most appropriate application of autonomous and electric vehicle technologies, we may even risk further entrenching an over-reliance on the private vehicle to meet our mobility needs – which is completely at cross-purposes with sustainable transport planning principles.

This is the key finding of the Autonomous Vehicles Research Report launched today by transport consultancy MRCagney.  The research, conducted in Auckland, advises on how to prepare for an autonomous future. While the report was produced in a New Zealand context, the findings are lessons for all cities.

By removing the need for a human driver, autonomous vehicles offer benefits such as:

  • Increased accessibility for people who are unable to drive themselves;
  • Reduced costs of point to point transport (taxis and other ride share) and delivery services;
  • Increased road safety and capacity; and
  • Reduced off-street parking requirements (but not short-stay on-street parking).

However, MRCagney cautions that there is the risk of:

  • Increased road congestion from increased demand for private and personal vehicle travel;
  • Increased vehicle miles travelled across the total network (with all the associated environmental impacts) as AVs continue to travel to pick up & drop-off more passengers compared with current vehicles that park at their destination; and
  • Increased pressure on meeting infrastructure requirements due to urban sprawl with longer commutes becoming more convenient in AVs,  due to the freedom for passengers to do other ‘things’ while a ‘chauffeur’ takes care of the driving.

So, how can we best embrace the opportunities of an autonomous vehicle future, while avoiding the potential pitfalls? AV Public transit.

There are great possibilities present when autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles are used for public transit. Availing of these technologies, PT services can be provided at a significant discount, with savings passed on to passengers or reinvested to improve overall service levels.

Leslie Carter, Managing Director of MRCagney, reports: “if fare revenues and government subsidies are maintained at 2016 levels, then AV enable PT service levels to increase by approximately 80%.”

AVs can, and should, be used to supplement – NOT replace – public transport (especially for last mile access), and extend personal on-demand choices to avoid increased congestion.

According to Carter, it’s all a waste of time if cities don’t get their public transport planning right:

“Our modelling shows that without public transport, even with full adoption of autonomous vehicles, cities will be heavily congested because of already constricted corridors into cities, the limit capacity of the road networks, and growing populations,” he said.

The report predicts that it will take until 2055 for AV technology to become standard in private cars. AVs capable of Levels’ 1 and 2 (semi-automation) are already available in the market place. Level 3 AVs (limited self-driving automation with all safety-critical functions automated, and surrounding conditions monitored) are now emerging for application on our city streets.

It is in our best interests to act now to prepare and adapt for the benefits that AV technologies bring to the table. For example:

  • Governments must enable AV advancement via regulation and providing certainty to the market.
  • Parking infrastructure must be updated to enable AV.
  • Public transport connections with autonomous car share vehicles must be facilitated.
  • AV should be trialled in PT vehicles.
  • Road infrastructure should be upgraded to be AV compliant.
  • Connective vehicle/infrastructure/services technologies should be invested in to improve road safety and the overall travel experience for all.

MRCagney’s report describes a future where autonomous vehicles are introduced slowly – commencing with ride-share services and public transport trials –  before becoming more widely adopted for car share and transit. It also highlights key steps to get there. MRCagney acknowledges this process could take several  years due to the slow rate of vehicle turnover, the high cost of the new technology, and legislative and technological barriers.




The question it comes back to is: Do AVs have a place within our cities without bunging up the urban environment? The answer is YES:


Transport Movements per hour 2
Source: Dale Bracewell – City of Vancouver


From 20,000 per hour to 50,000 per hour using pretty much all your transit modes except heavy rail!

Can we do this with Auckland and even Wellington? Most certainly (although scaled for our population).


AVs do have their place in the urban environment. Driverless trains are already here, driverless busses soon and driverless cars about 30 years away. All three complement each other well alongside active modes such as walking and cycling (thinking of e-bikes here) and the possibilities of AV’s changing urban geography as a result of AVs can not be ignored. That said in my final remarks AV’s being implemented wrong (re: tech bro solutions) can also have negative impact on the urban geography including making urban sprawl worse. We have to remember a car is a car no matter is it is a traditional car, an electric car or driverless car. A car is still the most inefficient form of moving people around even with the Last-Mile Gap (when e-bikes are especially present).