How computer-driven cars are likely to transform planning in your town


It’s 2026 and you’re heading to your local town with the family. Not owning a car, you tap your phone and within a few minutes a self-driving taxi pulls up. You relax in comfort as it drives to your destination, then drops you off by the shops and heads off for its next fare.

Your neighbour is heading to the shops too. She prefers to own and drive her own car. Having got to her destination, she taps a button and her car drives itself off to park in in out-of-town car park, where it waits for her to call it back to meet her.

The technology to do all of this not only exists today, but is in use on public roads. Uber has been testing self-drive taxis on the streets of Pittsburgh for months and Tesla and Google have self-drive cars on the roads. Right now a driver has to sit at the wheel, ready to take over if something goes wrong. That won’t be the case for long. Tech giants like Google, Apple and Uber along with traditional car makers like Ford are investing billions to bring genuine self-drive cars to our roads.

True, it might all go wrong. But, given the progress so far, it’s more than likely that cars driven by computer – with no steering wheel – will be commonplace on our roads inside a decade and ubiquitous in thirty years. There will be problems along the way and challenges to be solved – not least legal – but they can be met.

For politicians trying to plan decades ahead, the question is what it will change. And that’s an important question. Take planning. At the moment councils across the country are figuring out how to square the need for growth and housing with the desire to keep our green spaces and stop our transport infrastructure falling apart. What impact will self-drive cars have?

Automated cars can make much more efficient use of roadspace, and the more there are, the more effective they become. That means more cars squeezed onto the same amount of roadspace, so the need to spend billions endlessly widening roads and expanding the network might be removed, or at least delayed by decades.

If cars can park themselves, there’s no need for car parking to be near to shops. Imagine halving the number of car parking spaces in your town centre and giving all that space over to housing or urban parkland. If self-drive taxis work out as cheaper than owning your own car there will be far fewer cars on the roads and far less need for any sort of car parking. Perhaps places that are currently looking at greenbelt release will turn out not to need it at all – former car parks will be sufficient to meet the need.

According to The Economist, an OECD report modelling the effects shared self-driving cars in Lisbon predicts that 80-90% fewer cars may be needed. Even if the real figure turns out to be just 20% it would make a massive difference to our towns and cities. The Economist also points out that up to 25% of the space in some American cities is devoted to car parking.

Policy that gambles our future on uncertain technological breakthroughs is rarely sensible, but policy that ignores likely progress is equally foolish.

As we plan investment in new housing, economic growth and transport infrastructure for the next 20-30 years, we would be crazy not to at least have a contingency plan that says “here’s what we can do differently if the advances in self-drive cars continue to progress at the same speed as now.” Such a plan might well involve less road-building, less pollution, more green spaces and more town and city centre development. Not a bad prize if we can get it.



* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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  • Just to get in before the anti-public-transport advocates arrive: trains and trams and buses can all use the same self-driving technology to make more efficient use of space (by driving closer together) as cars, but they’re naturally better users of space to start with, so no, self-driving taxis don’t make public transport obsolete.

    They might change the balance on where to have public transport – a small fleet of self-driving taxis could be a great way to deliver affordable public transport in low-density (ie rural) areas, for example. Smaller towns might be able to have evening (or night) buses if they’re self-driving, when they couldn’t pay for a second (or third) shift of busdrivers. Trains have become increasingly self-driving over the years anyway (the DLR has been self-driving since 1987). But, in the end, you can fit more people along a railway line per hour than you can along the same width of road, so the railway line leaves more space in the town or city for other things – that is, the very reasons that you have a town or city in the first place.

    No-one really knows whether we will have a lot of cars and many people owning them, or a smaller number of cars that are more shared (ie taxis). Planners should be trying to keep their options open

    If people do end up owning cars and living in cities, then you could be looking at planning applications to convert edge-of-city wasteland into car parks – as storage space for cars belonging to people who live in places where they don’t have a permanent parking place. There are plenty of places I can think of which would make great car parks, and where the land really has no other use, for instance, under or alongside a motorway. Of course, these are car-parks as pure car storage, not with the intent that people will actually want to go there.

    If people share a smaller number of vehicles, then those car parks won’t be needed, of course.

  • Also, pick-up and drop-off points that are safe and accessible. Could your taxi ranks cope with many times as many people using them? Are there locations near major workplaces where hundreds or thousands of people can be dropped off by and then picked up by their self-driving car (at the moment, people park a distance from their workplace and walk; won’t that expectation change for self-drivers? can your road system actually cope with that?)

    If you’ve implemented transport systems that have additional capacity in one direction in the peak, you need to think about the counter-peak empty-vehicle journeys, either of taxis going to pick up a second commuter-customer, or of private cars going back to park up at people’s houses.

  • Matt (Bristol) 5th Sep '16 - 5:17pm

    Is this the same self-driving systems regarding which, when I replied to a similar thread on here a while back by another author, stating that infrastructure changes may need to be made, I was told I was being silly?

  • Phil Beesley 5th Sep '16 - 5:38pm

    @Iain Roberts: “The technology to do all of this not only exists today, but is in use on public roads.”

    This technology has been used on public roads at low speed. It has not been tested on the equivalents of a motorway or UK dual carriageway.

    All of the tosh you’ve read about autonomous cars has been about test cars in suburban environments. An autonomous car will drive you from home to work — on suburban roads. The next step is for an autonomous car to drive across Exmoor at dusk with sheep sleeping on the road.

    “If cars can park themselves, there’s no need for car parking to be near to shops. ”

    I’m not sure how tolerant car owners will be if the car parked itself four miles away.

    “If self-drive taxis work out as cheaper than owning your own car there will be far fewer cars on the roads and far less need for any sort of car parking.”

    People in London use cars very differently from people elsewhere in the UK. I don’t think an autonomous taxi — in a distress situation — will drive me from St Pancras to Bolton.

    “As we plan investment in new housing, economic growth and transport infrastructure for the next 20-30 years, we would be crazy not to at least have a contingency plan that says…”

    … holy Mackerel! We have to consider whether the tech firms we expect to deliver change are capable.

  • Iain Roberts 5th Sep '16 - 10:00pm

    Hi Phil,

    Not entirely true. The technology is in use at higher speeds and on non-test cars (e.g. Tesla). It’s not fully autonomous yet, as I noted in the article, but it’s close. I don’t know where you get four miles from, but I think most people would be happy to have their car come to them rather than hunting around the car park with heavy bags.

    I’m not London-based myself so I’ll take your word for how people in London use cars. Thankfully, as a society we’ve shown ourselves to be pretty capable at coming up with options to meet the needs of different people at different times, whether it’s a taxi, hire car, owned car, public transport or something else.

    As for driving across Exmoor at dusk, I can’t think of any particular reason why it would be more complex than navigating a busy urban environment with cats dashing across the road.

    So yes, we do need to consider whether the tech is capable; but so far it’s passed those tests.

  • There are a couple of fundamental assumptions that have to be questioned. Firstly, it doesn’t really matter who or what actually drives a vehicle or how it is powered. Vehicular traffic takes up lots of space in our urban environments and prevents the free flow of people, hence why many of our towns and cities now have pedestrian only zones and some are seeking to adopt London’s “congestion charge” (note it is called ‘congestion’ for a reason).

    Hence I suggest the need isn’t so much for our planners to allow for cars, but to develop our cities and transport infrastructure so as to reduce the need for large numbers of cars and/or a high-level of car ownership/usage per head of population.

    Secondly, we will have problems fuelling the current numbers of vehicles on our roads, regardless of whether they are fossil fuelled (petrol/diesel/LPG) or electric. So projections for substantially more cars can only add to the problem. This naturally is before we take into consideration our need to reduce emissions and energy consumption…

    As for where the current state of the art is really at, well you do need to do some digging, because those doing the R&D are trying to keep things under wraps. But it is quite entertaining to see the gulf between the fantasy and reality; but then given the billions being pumped into driverless cars, it is only to be expected for the marketeers to be out in force selling a vision in an attempt to create a market, whilst at the same time carefully control what information on real progress reaches the public.

  • Cars will park themselves? If the parking charges are too high they will drive themselves in circles adding congestion & emissions. Least cost economics will still determine success. I don’t own or drive so don’t have a dog in the fight.

  • Phil Beesley 9th Sep '16 - 8:33pm

    Iain Roberts: “As for driving across Exmoor at dusk, I can’t think of any particular reason why it would be more complex than navigating a busy urban environment with cats dashing across the road.”

    One of the great things about being a Liberal in 2016 is that you’ll know somebody who knows sheep.

  • Iain & Phil – cats and sheep not a problem! 🙂

    Deer, however, are another matter and aren’t confined to Exmoor…

    A video clip (one of many) to give you some idea of the speed deer can move at and the problem driverless cars will have in both spotting and avoiding them.

  • Phil Beesley 11th Sep '16 - 3:20pm

    For Roland, mostly.

    Christian Wolmar has written well about the potential impact of autonomous vehicles on our roads. If we have autonomous cars wibbling their ways down narrow streets, there will be more cars on the road and more congestion.

    There’s a Margaret Thatcher quote — without provenance — that “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure.” Some people reckon it is a truism. Smarter people recall that the omnibus is for everyone.

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