Planning for an autonomous world?

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Planning for an Autonomous World?
If the Autumn Statement disclosed anything about the Chancellor's life at 11 Downing Street, it's that traffic on Whitehall is getting worse and Mr Hammond hasn't the time to drive himself to work. Well, that is one take on the commitment in the Autumn Statement to spend £390 million to support development of low emission and autonomous vehicles.

And it seems that the daily commute behind the steering wheel is a Westminster-wide bugbear, as the House of Lords cross-party Science and Technology Committee continues its 'Autonomous vehicles inquiry'.

Driverless cars are already being tested on roads. So what could be the upshot of all of this in planning terms?

Change to urban and rural living

Erick Guerra, an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the transition to driverless cars may alter our choices about where to live. With faster and less stressful commutes, Guerra predicts, homes at the rural edges of urban sprawl may become even more in demand. This would arguably signal more tension with green belt and countryside policies.

Meanwhile, the 'Urban Mobility System Upgrade' study by the International Transport Forum (ITF) found that on street parking could be completely eliminated by driverless cars. Will this, as the ITF predicts, precipitate buildings being constructed closer and closer together and enable development of greater density? This wish to promote increased densities is already sought near transport infrastructure hubs in London and is on the National Infrastructure Commission's radar.

Urban planning could then be presented with greater challenges, perhaps in relation to pollution or access to light. There may also be upsides. Stanford University assistant professor Reilly Brennan expressed earlier this year hope for the opening up of public space and more affordable housing being delivered closer to workplaces.

Residential parking

A prominent feature in existing Local Plans is provision for car parking in residential developments. Yet the ITF findings suggest a decreased need for residential car parking especially in urban centres. This may release development land and provide greater scope for planning authorities to mandate other uses of land, such as extending green infrastructure networks into cities and providing other community assets.

A reduced need for car parking may also see reductions in garden space being adapted for off-road parking. This may reduce the risks of localised flooding which is accepted as being exacerbated when front gardens are covered over with impermeable surfaces.

Size of roadways

Another interesting point is how the enhanced responsiveness of driverless cars could influence the size and shape of our roadways. Models already in production are equipped with sensors to scan the world around them, and have practically instantaneous reaction times. Some commentators advocate greater shared low-speed vehicular and pedestrian space. This has the potential to re-energise the "home zone" and "shared surface" design principles.

On high-speed roads, cars will be able to travel faster and closer together via "connected technology". The number of lanes needed to accommodate rush hour traffic, the ITF found, could be reduced by up to two-thirds. Does this mean fewer and smaller roadways reducing the number of highway upgrades?

There is an interesting future ahead and the opportunity could be grasped and enabled by planning with foresight. One thing is for sure, this has the possibility for the digital virtual world to have a positive impact on the limited real world space we will continue to inhabit for the foreseeable future.