Friday, 28 April 2017

We must plan the driverless city to avoid being hostage to the technology revolution



John Stone, University of Melbourne; Carey Curtis, Curtin University; Crystal Legacy, RMIT University, and Jan Scheurer, Curtin University

Trials of autonomous cars and buses have begun on the streets of Australian cities. Communications companies are moving to deploy the lasers, cameras and centimetre-perfect GPS that will enable a vehicle to navigate the streets of your town or city without a driver. The Conversation

Most research and commentary is telling us how the new machines will work, but not how they might shape our cities. The talk is of the benefits of new shared transport economies, but these new technologies will shape our built environment in ways that are not yet fully understood. There’s every chance that, if mismanaged, driverless technologies will entrench the ills of car dependency.

As with Uber and the taxi industry, public sector planners and regulators will be forced to respond to the anger of those displaced by the new products the IT and automobile industries will bring to the market. But can we afford to wait?

Three competing interests


Three distinct groups are giving form to the idea of driverless vehicles. Each has its own corporate proponents and target markets, and its own, often competing, demands on citizens, regulators and planners. Each will make its own demands on our streets and public spaces.

First, the traditional car makers are adding “driverless” features to their existing products. They have no compelling interest in changing the current individual ownership model. Their target consumer is someone who values private vehicle ownership and enjoys driving.

These carmakers’ challenge is to win over drivers sceptical about “their” car doing things they can’t control, whether that is behaving differently in traffic or performing unescorted journeys. But, if successful, these new cars will make driving easier and so encourage more travel and ever-expanding suburbs.

Second, cashed-up IT disruptors like Google and Uber see new types of vehicles and new patterns of ownership as the basis for new transport economies. They want lightweight, utilitarian “robo-taxis” owned by a corporation and rented by the trip. Travellers will use phone apps or their next-generation successors to do this. This, in the jargon, is “mobility as a service”.

These companies’ ambition is to carve out a large niche in competition with private cars, taxis, conventional public transport and even non-motorised transport. Fleets of shared vehicles in constant circulation can reduce the number of individually owned cars and, in particular, the need for parking.
In some circumstances, this may support more compact urban forms. But while sustainability or social objectives might be part of the pitch, the profit motive remains dominant.

Third, public transport operators can see opportunities and challenges in driverless technologies. Already, Vancouver reaps the benefits of lower operating costs for its driverless elevated-rail system.



In Vancouver, the train pulls into a station with no driver on board.

Savvy operators understand that new vehicle technology is only valuable if it is integrated with traditional public transport services and with cycling and walking. This means central coordination.

Vitally, it also requires control of the information platforms needed to provide multimodal mobility.
Such levels of planning and regulation conflict with Google’s “disruptive” free-market ambitions.

European operators, who are in a more powerful position in economic and social life than their Australian counterparts, are already mobilising for this contest.

Whatever the technology, transport needs space


Many claims for the benefits of driverless technologies rely on the complete transformation of the existing vehicle fleet. But the transition will not be smooth or uniform. Autonomous vehicles will face a significant period of mixed operation with traditional vehicles.

Freeways are likely to be the first roads on which the new vehicles will be able to operate. Promoters of these vehicles might join forces with the conventional car lobby to demand extra lanes. This would dash the hopes of many that driverless cars will lead to reduced space for mass movement of cars.

After the freeways, the next objective will be to bring driverless cars, trucks and buses onto city streets. This will require complex systems of sensors and cameras.

The ambition is to allow all users to share road space much more safely than they do today. But, if a driverless vehicle will never hit a jaywalker, what will stop every pedestrian and cyclist from simply using the street as they please? Some analysts are predicting that the new vehicles will be slower than conventional driving, partly because the current balance of fear will be upset.

Already active travellers are struggling to assert their right to the streets of Australian cities. Just imagine how much worse it would be if a dominant autonomous-vehicle fleet operator demanded widespread fencing of roadways to keep bikes and pedestrians out of the way.

The presence of driverless cars cannot alter the fact that space for urban transport is severely constrained. For travel within and between compact urban centres, we will need more and better high-capacity mass transit as well as first-class conditions for walking and cycling.

The integration of conventional public transport networks with shared autonomous vehicles, large and small, offers many opportunities for a much improved service. But that will happen only if this objective is the major focus of investment, innovation, planning and regulation.

Researchers and policymakers need to move rapidly to gain a holistic and systematic understanding of the multiplicity of driverless-vehicle scenarios and the potential harm that some might contain. The technologies are not an unalloyed good, and governments will need to do more than just be “open for business”.

John Stone, Senior Lecturer in Transport Planning, University of Melbourne; Carey Curtis, Professor of City Planning and Transport, Curtin University; Crystal Legacy, Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, and Jan Scheurer, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

How do we restore the public's faith in transport planning?






This is the third article in our series Making Cities Work. It considers the problems of providing critical infrastructure and how we might produce the innovations and reforms needed to meet 21st-century needs and challenges. The Conversation



Opposition to proposed road projects has become a feature of state and federal elections.

In Western Australia, protests against the Roe Highway Stage 8 escalated just before Christmas 2016. On the eve of the state election, Main Roads WA contractors (acting at the behest of the then Liberal-National government) pushed forward with the destruction of the environmentally significant Beeliar wetlands.

This happened despite considerable community opposition. The Labor opposition, now the newly elected government, declared it would halt the construction if elected.

Politics as usual puts planning under a cloud


In our recently published paper, we compared road projects in Melbourne (East West Link), Sydney (WestConnex) and Perth (Perth Freight Link). Based on observational, policy and media analysis, we found growing antagonism between the state governments and their residents.

Roe 8 is just the latest freeway battle in Australia, following those in Sydney and Melbourne, where the Labor government cancelled the East West Link.

To the casual observer, these protests, and promises by parties in opposition to scrap contracts if elected, could be seen simply as “politics as usual”.

However, normalising politics in transport can veil the deficiencies and shortcuts that undermine planners’ ability to act in the public interest. For this reason, it is critical that we examine what dynamics are at play, and how planning serves and/or exacerbates these.

Professional planning bypassed


In the case of Roe 8, good planning was circumvented.

Not only is this undermining efforts to reduce car dependency and invest in public transport – goals adopted in these three cities’ metropolitan strategic plans since at least the 1990s – it is undermining professional planning practice.

The evasion of due process in planning has recently come into sharp focus. Reports by the Australian Auditor-General on the WestConnex project in Sydney and by the Victorian Auditor-General on the East West Link in Melbourne are severely critical of processes taken. The report on the East West Link concluded that the Victorian government lacked “a sound basis for the government’s decision to commit to the investment”.

In the case of Roe 8, Main Roads WA documents provided to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development were recently released under FOI after a two-year court battle to keep them secret. These show a rushed and partial assessment of the transport case for the road was put to Infrastructure Australia.

The latter, in its own assessment, alerts us to concerns about inadequate analysis:

A rapid BCR (benefit cost ratio) was completed for the preferred option only … [and] a rapid BCR was not completed for additional options to determine if the preferred option provided the greatest net benefits.

Traffic planning is only one part of the process. A Freight Network Review commenced in 2001 and concluded in 2003 found that Roe 8 was not needed. There is no publicly available report stating why this sound planning was set aside.

In addition, proper planning process has been bypassed. The previous WA government argued that the Roe Highway had been reserved in the Metropolitan Region Scheme (MRS) since the 1960s and that this was good long-term planning. However, the detailed road alignment falls outside this reserve at three locations.

This triggered the use by the WA Planning Commission of a “Planning Control Area” (PCA), the purpose of which is to protect land until “proper planning” can take place. After this, an MRS amendment must be initiated and advertised for public comment.

Construction began before any public consultation on the MRS amendment. Was this to avoid public scrutiny?

Public consultation is an important part of any good planning process. It was undertaken for other 1960s major road reserves. These were reviewed against current knowledge and policy, and in some cases deleted (the Stirling Highway, for example).

Public input into the planning process provides an opportunity for governments to bring the community with them through both owning the planning problem and arriving at a solution that the public can support.

Risks of politicisation are high


Large transport projects are likely to attract opposition from affected communities. Construction is disruptive and the visual, noise and amenity changes are significant.

These projects are also transformational. They lead to profound city-wide, and even region-wide, changes to the environment and the working of a city.

For these reasons, planning for transport projects must be a process of careful consideration. It requires sound professional planning based on reasoned justification drawing on the best available evidence. This process must be transparent to all.

When politicians choose a different course to planning advice, this must be on their own account and again transparent. We need a strong discussion on professional ethics and the need for clear separation of planners’ independent advice from elected politicians’ decisions.

In the case of Roe 8, are we to assume that the analysis and conduct of the planning process we see revealed reflects what planners at Main Roads WA and the Western Australian Planning Commission believe is sound professional practice? Or are they simply building a case for politicians?

Without clear and transparent documentation, planners leave themselves open to criticism and bring the profession into disrepute.

Room for improvement


Based on our research, we assert the need to recognise that the gap between strategic planning and project planning needs to be filled by a more community-oriented decision-making process.

We must challenge “urgency” – when governments aim to sign contracts before we have had sound planning analysis and community input.

Long-term planning does not mean that a project like Roe 8, which was first mooted more than 50 years ago, must be built today. We need to take into account new knowledge and current views on our future. We must place equality and environmental and economic sustainability in balance, as weighed by community values.

The political process is one place where those values must be considered holistically. This is immensely important, but it should not undermine transparent and sound planning.



This article draws on a research paper by the authors in a new special issue of the international journal, Urban Policy and Research, on critical urban infrastructure. You can read other published articles in our series here.

Crystal Legacy, Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University; Carey Curtis, Professor of City Planning and Transport, Curtin University, and Jan Scheurer, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.