Mixed use street scene: walkers, cyclist and car

+ Automated vehicles offer us the chance to design cities that work more harmoniously for all city dwellers.

Roads largely define the shape and operation of cities. That’s why the gathering shift towards automated vehicles (AVs) is likely to drive significant changes in the design of cities and improve the nature and quality of pedestrian space. I believe that as urban place makers, designers have a vital role to play influencing the shape of the new ‘shared mobility corridors’ that will replace traditional roads. 

In this ‘shared mobility corridor’ model, different modes of transport, vehicular and non-vehicular (walking, cycling, skate boarding, etc.) are brought closer together to share a common route without the need for separation in levels and design. For Middle Eastern cities, many of which developed in tandem with the twentieth century’s embrace of the motorcar, this new development offers a lot of potentially positive outcomes. For in the move to automated vehicles every aspect of road infrastructure is open to change or reconsideration. 

AVs, being smaller and lighter vehicles, could potentially run on different surfaces and asphalt might not even be required. The lower speed of AVs and their precision awareness of pedestrians means closer proximity between the vehicles, pedestrians and other road transport is possible. Urban grids can therefore be narrower, allowing for more intimate spaces, shaded through the proximity of adjoining buildings. And parking provision can be optimised, freeing up valuable urban space for other, more social uses.

Another design implication relates to the lower emissions of AVs. Unlike combustion engines, electrical engines emit about 19.8% less heat, according to research from Michigan State University. This could dramatically reduce the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE) within cities, which in turn can reduce the need for air conditioning inside the vehicles and the CO2 emissions accompanying it, again reducing the overall heat produced. A reduction in the UHIE also means a more pleasant environment for pedestrians and cyclists, with safer, narrower streets promoting urban walkability

In the Middle East, cities’ contemporary shape is mostly determined by the layout of the road network. With a shift to AVs, design standards such as road widths, turning radii, curb stones, and choice of materials could be completely re-thought in the light of AVs’ vastly different road use profile. This could create a shift towards roads that are more pedestrian-friendly.

The era of letting city design be dominated by the needs of the petrol car might be coming to an end. Fundamentally, the coming AV revolution offers designers the chance to reconsider urban design as an opportunity to cater for people, both inside and outside of their vehicles. How would you re-design our city roads given the coming AV revolution?