Blue Lanes - A Strategy for Integrating Driverless Mobility - Part 1

The Road We Are On

Driverless cars. Autonomous vehicles. This new era of mobility and its implementation by our largest corporations appears imminent. What are the urban planners to do?

Looking at the tech alone there might be little we can do. Driverless vehicles represent one of the greatest technological challenges ever undertaken, and only automotive and technology companies possess the deep pockets (and lines of credit) necessary to develop it. It is a project that no government organization (outside the military) has the budget to undertake and too complex for any regulatory agency to effectively manage. But it is happening nonetheless.

And why not let them build it for us? Driverless solutions are an attractive prospect for cash strapped governments already struggling with ageing infrastructure and increased travel demand.  However, the mobility systems developed by private corporations will give them great leverage in the transportation sector.  Ultimately the cost of entry could limit the number of competing mobility providers. A mobility monopoly would have effects analogous to those of the cable industry, funneling passengers to paying (often corporate) businesses over locally owned retailers and services.

And there is the reality that driverless vehicles will go not where all roads are, but where the best roads are. Just as Internet traffic makes no use of copper cable laying inches from a new fiber-optic line, driverless cars will gravitate towards the best infrastructure in a manner and at a speed not typical of existing traffic. In short, the second best roads will be no roads at all, bypassed as effectively as state highways (like route 66) were by the interstate.

We own the pavement.

Fortunately vehicles are only part of our transportation system. This change in our transportation infrastructure is not just about the car, but about the roads as well.  Technological change may be beyond anyone's control, but society makes decisions about the road, the most important being its location.  In the beginning we did this with our feet, establishing the paths that in many places persist this day. Now it is done by the largest planning organizations the world has ever seen. But it is still in public hands. Our hands. And the establishment of a new road is how as a society we will shape our transportation future.

If we don't take hold of the wheel (or at least have a hand on the emergency brake) we may face situation where transportation is a monopoly of mobility providers. It is critically important that municipal and regional planning organizations participate actively in the process of developing a driverless infrastructure as early as possible. This should go beyond the passive acts of regulation and oversight. Where the roads go,  how they are used, and to whose benefit are all all more amenable to public oversight than the design of driverless vehicles themselves. There's more to the driverless infrastructure then just cars without steering wheels.

Perhaps most important in the short term is that the establishment of control over lanes for driverless vehicles gives local and regional transit authorities the opportunity to recapture revenue lost to the failure of the gas tax.  A lane dedicated to automated vehicles would provide a record of miles traveled and all the necessary information to meter and charge it  per mile, per minute, all at varying rates depending on density. Local government has a strong incentive to implement such a system that could pay for itself as well as create a tool for regulating the growth of the infrastructure as a whole. Driverless cars could pay for the asphalt under their wheels without the political resistance associated with drivers.

This series of articles describes a path forward for municipal and regional planning organizations to establish a working relationship with mobility providers. The basic concept, the Blue Lane, is both practical and achievable with available resources and technology.  The next section will describe a straightforward approach to carving out space for the development and implementation of mobility solutions in our already overburdened infrastructure.


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