Town planning and autonomous cars

Posted on
This article was first published on LexisNexis on 19 January 2017.

Planning analysis: Planning authorities and experts are often accused of being slow and unresponsive, to the detriment of areas that subsequently fail to develop a discernible sense of character. With the advent of autonomous vehicles, however, comes an exciting opportunity for planning policy to adopt a lithe approach to enabling development into the twenty-first century. Keith Lancaster, senior associate and a specialist in planning law at Blake Morgan, and Harley Freemantle, paralegal in Blake Morgan’s planning team, examine recent trends and developments.

What does the Autumn Statement propose in relation to expenditure on the development of connected and autonomous vehicles?

The National Productivity Investment Fund introduced by the Autumn Statement includes £100m investment in new UK connected and autonomous vehicle testing infrastructure.

This investment supplements a £100m testing scheme announced under the previous chancellor, George Osborne, and will complement existing test centres in Milton Keynes, Coventry, Greenwich and Bristol.

Testing is the crucial last step in R&D before driverless cars can enter the UK’s automotive market and become a presence on Britain’s roads.

Furthermore, the Autumn Statement announced £1.3bn investment in roads infrastructure and £700m investment in the roll-out of 5G communications. This will drive development of the physical and digital infrastructure on which the next generation of vehicles will rely.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders welcomed these measures, adding ‘the commitment to connected and autonomous vehicle testing infrastructure is an area in which the UK is already one of Europe’s leading centres’.

What impact could developments in this area have on urban planning?

While current investment focuses on testing, the government expects autonomous vehicles to share our roadways by 2025, although the level of autonomy may not be 100%. The consequences for the built environment will be significant.

The transition to driverless cars may alter our choices about where to live, as faster and less stressful commutes increase demand for homes at the rural edges of urban sprawl.

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?

A prominent feature in existing local plans is provision for car parking in residential developments. This reduced need may see reductions in garden space being adapted for off-road parking, and consequential reduction in the risks of localised flooding—exacerbated when front gardens are covered over with impermeable surfaces. The ITF study also found that the number of lanes needed to accommodate rush hour traffic could be reduced by up to two-thirds. Does this mean fewer and smaller roadways reducing the number of highway upgrades?

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.

What is clear is that the concept of ‘urban densification’ will become an ever greater buzzword over the next decade.

London, through the London Plan, and other major urban centres, through devolved planning policies, will promote densification around transport infrastructure hubs in suburbs as well as city centres.

Strategies for estate densification are already being assessed, for example in the Centre for London’s report from September 2016, ‘Another Storey: The Real Potential for Estate Densification’. The development of such estates will place increased pressure on urban infrastructure, requiring a solution.

What sort of challenges might the planning system face with the rise of autonomous cars?

Predicted increased demand for homes at the edges of cities may increase tension between the need for housebuilding and policies designed to protect green belts and countryside.

While increased density is already sought near transport infrastructure hubs in London and is on the National Infrastructure Commission’s radar, it may present numerable challenges such as on pollution and access to light.

Moreover, involving planning at the national infrastructure level offers opportunistic justification for new urban centres within the countryside that are more easily designed for higher density living from their inception.

In utilising urban development land released by the disappearance of on-street parking, planning authorities must balance densification with alternative uses such as extending green infrastructure networks and providing additional public open space.

Loss of home car parking could create a barrier to social mobility, at least initially. Driverless vehicles will enter at the higher end of the market, meaning that only more wealthy individuals and families will have a reason to remove car parking from their homes. Thus, for upwardly mobile buyers, a move to a more valuable home may necessitate the purchase of a driverless car, making such moves less feasible. Will this exacerbate existing housing market challenges?

Moreover, cars are highly personal items to some people. Those individuals may not wish to join car schemes utilising autonomous cars. In the absence of mandatory rules there will be the need for off-street parking in the foreseeable future.

The rejection of autonomous car clubs could also be a moral issue to others who value freedom and the driving experience.

The enhanced responsiveness of driverless cars has the potential to re-energise the ‘home zone’ and ‘shared surface’ design principles. Under the ‘home zone’ principle, speed limits are restricted by law and posted on signage within the home zone area. Compliance with these limits will be enhanced if autonomous vehicles are programmed to obey those restrictions.

Under the ‘shared surface’ principle, highway furniture is removed from spaces shared by motorists and pedestrians. A key challenge to this principle is reluctance by pedestrians to occupy the whole of the surface as intended, instead sticking to safe areas at the sides. The enhanced safety and responsiveness of driverless vehicles may encourage pedestrians to occupy shared surfaces as intended, thereby enabling parity in the use of such spaces between pedestrians and vehicle users and truly achieving the objective of such principles.

The planning system has been charged for many years with being unresponsive and slow, stymying good design that promotes a recognisable character for an area. Challenges such as the development of autonomous vehicles provide opportunities for planning policy to adopt a lithe approach to enabling development into the twenty-first century.

Keith Lancaster is a senior associate at Blake Morgan, where he specialises in planning law, advising in major projects and infrastructure, energy and renewables in the commercial, industrial and residential sectors. His main areas of practice include negotiating and drafting s 106 and s 278/38 agreements, providing advice in dealing with local planning authorities and acting for clients in the courts. He also advises on planning appeals, highway law, public rights of way, environmental law, town and village greens and compulsory purchase.

Interviewed by Jane Crinnion.