Automated Vehicles (AVs), otherwise known as self-driving cars, are emerging from the pages of science fiction novels into our present reality. Australian jurisdictions are competing to provide a petri dish for the testing of new technologies, with each vying for leadership in the Automated and Connected Vehicle arena. Austroads provides a stocktake of current initiatives in this space, with over 30 pilot projects in Australia alone1.
Of course, AVs promise to deliver a significant improvement in quality of life for the many people in the community who have mobility difficulties or are unable to drive a car. For these people, everyday tasks can be difficult, particularly in environments that have been fundamentally built around motor vehicle usage. At first glance, it may seem that only a minority of the population is unable to drive a car. However, licence-holders in Australia in 2017 made up around 17.5 million of a population of around 24.6 million people2, leaving 29% of the population without a licence.
Of course, a large portion of those without a licence are too young to drive, however, the fact remains that almost a third of the population are dependent on non-car modes or on others for transport. For these people, the future availability of AVs is being heralded as a massive step towards equality of access to mobility. Not only could these vehicles provide cheap, safe and convenient movement along roadways, they could also go beyond the kerb and enter spaces that have been conventionally reserved for pedestrians such as footpaths and plazas.
For those unable to walk even a short distance from a vehicle to their destination, there will undoubtedly be benefits to providing AV assistance that goes beyond the kerb. However, excessive use of AVs in pedestrian spaces may introduce a number of disbenefits. Firstly, for those who are perfectly able to walk, it is likely that the provision of AV services will decrease physical activity levels and therefore negatively affect health. In addition to this, AV services that operate in pedestrian spaces will generate negative externalities that are likely to outweigh the benefits provided to vehicle occupants.
If footpaths become crowded by Automated Vehicles, pedestrians will feel unwelcome, unsafe and alienated. This could potentially lead to a greater desire to give up on the humble and healthy act of walking, and instead encourage more people to sit in the air-conditioned, comfortable, but sedentary environment of an Automated Vehicle. The potential decrease in physical activity that could occur is worrying, as the incidental physical activity we receive by walking plays a vital role in keeping us healthy. And it is not just the health of our bodies that we may lose with this transition. The health and vitality of our cities is at stake, with AVs threatening to convert town centres bustling with human activity into sterile landscapes dominated by distinctly non-human, computerised vehicle interactions.
Companies seeking to bring AV technology to our footpaths have leap-frogged the companies seeking to bring AVs to our streets, primarily due to the greater simplicity of solving problems at 10 km/h vs solving them at 100 km/h. In Australia, trials of AVs on the footpaths of campus areas are occurring in several states. However, before we race towards a future where walking is largely replaced by footpath-bound AVs, we need to consider how we would like our cities to look and feel in the future.
A key consideration is determining how governments can facilitate the needs of those who are currently marginalised by their lack of access to mobility, while also being careful to protect safe and pleasant pedestrian spaces. If the addition of AVs in pedestrian-only spaces results in a reduction in walking, then we will have failed to deliver a transport system and a public realm that fosters healthy people and healthy communities.
Just as we currently allocate disabled parking permits to those who need them, there may be a role for the regulation of AVs to ensure that only those who need assistance can use AVs in pedestrian spaces. Without such regulation, we may find that while AVs provide a ubiquity of mobility, they also become a profanity for humanity.
1 Austroads (2019) https://austroads.com.au/drivers-and-vehicles/connected-and-automated-vehicles/trials
2 Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), 2018, Yearbook 2018: Australian Infrastructure Statistics, Statistical Report, BITRE, Canberra ACT.