If you think self-driving cars, trucks and buses are the stuff of science fiction, think again. Collectively known as autonomous vehicles, dozens are being pilot-tested as public transit in neighbourhoods throughout Canada. Key AV technologies, such as collision-avoidance systems, are now standard in newer cars. Loblaws has even launched a small fleet of AVs for Toronto grocery deliveries.
While AVs promise to be game-changers in the transportation world, it’s essential that we start planning now to ensure realization of their potential to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, not increase them. The introduction of AV technologies on city streets must proceed from a climate action starting point. AVs can support climate-friendly, livable and dense cities by providing low-cost, well connected mobility and transportation options for Canadians.
If we get our planning, policies and regulations right, we could be deploying AVs in congested cities as shared shuttles summoned via smartphones for on-demand transit applications.
Zero-emissions public transit mobility is the focus of the federal government’s recent $14.9-billion transit funding pledge. If we get our planning, policies and regulations right, we could be deploying AVs in congested cities as shared shuttles summoned via smartphones for on-demand transit applications. Depending on the destination, cost and urgency of service, these zero-emissions options could range from on-demand cars and shuttle buses to fixed-route public transit vehicles using autonomous technologies so buses can operate with little space between them, allowing a bus lane to accommodate more riders.
These types of technologies could lead to fewer single-passenger and private vehicles on the road, more public space freed up where there used to be parking, and plenty of infrastructure for cycling, walking and other forms of healthy, self-propelled transportation. Cities would be redeveloped to create dense and complete communities with shops, services and workplaces closer at hand and driving distances would plummet. Ultimately, there would be little incentive to drive alone in your own gas-powered or electric car.
If we don’t steer this rollout on the right course, we could face a future in which single-occupant, self driving vehicles dominate roads. Privately owned by those who can afford them, streams of cars without any occupants would circle neighbourhoods, increasing congestion and slowing transit to a crawl. Urban sprawl would continue, with people using longer commutes to sit and stare at a screen.
AVs must not be allowed to offer carmakers the chance to add more polluting single-occupancy vehicles to our already crowded streets.
According to a new report by the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) for the David Suzuki Foundation, Metro Vancouver policy-makers have an opportunity to build on the upcoming Transport 2050 plan by advancing deployment of shared AVs as emissions-reducing and mobility-improving tools in the fight against climate change. But this will only happen if funding for deployment and demonstration programs is tied to urban redesign efforts that allocate dedicated laneways for AV shuttles and support the installation of roadside connected devices (like “dedicated short range communications” devices) that beam signals from cars to infrastructure so they can talk to each other and navigate intersections safely.
Concerns are being raised that rules around AV use are being shaped by the few large, primarily automotive corporations that sell AVs or the services they provide, not by local transit agencies, residents or businesses that will be most affected by deployments. AVs must not be allowed to offer carmakers the chance to add more polluting single-occupancy vehicles to our already crowded streets.
We must ensure that in our efforts to move to a fully decarbonized economy by 2050, we avoid scenarios in which new mobility options cause emissions increases, worsen already congested traffic systems and exacerbate accessibility inequalities. We have an opportunity to reduce Canada’s emphasis on privately owned vehicles in urban centres and increase access to mobility services integrated with robust public and active transportation infrastructure. Mobility can be transformed into shared, electric and active networks that support good health, clean air and easy access to mobility nationwide — if we choose to make that our priority.
AVs may be self-driving, but policy-makers must steer them in the right direction. It’s time for decision-makers to proactively chart the course that directs Metro toward the best environmental and social outcomes.
This op-ed was originally published in The Vancouver Sun