Episode 7 - Technology fights back

Roger Boulter’s recent book draft (see www.boulter.co.nz for the full text) won a 2020 WSP Golden Foot Award. This post outlines some issues covered in the ninth of twelve chapters.

Technology fights back

Technological innovation may give great scope for public benefit, but this needs to be established, not assumed. Some of the more enthusiastic hype surrounding ‘autonomous vehicles’ may be unrealistic. Like the car when it first appeared, what seems wonderful when there are small numbers may not hold true for mass use (as any gridlocked car commuter can testify).

Particularly unrealistic is the idea of majorly reducing congestion and off-street parking through autonomous vehicles constantly circulating (they still take up space whether driving or parked); and the idea this may render public transport obsolete is particularly fanciful. Buses or trains (which, after all, are a form of the newly-coined ‘Mobility As A Service’) with large numbers of occupants will be more space-efficient than cars, autonomous or not. But often overlooked is that effects on walking and cycling may be very significant, and negative. Bearing in mind the crucial human-scale and face-to-face nature of the latter (especially walking), which should merit their having priority in transport planning, this may render the technological innovation not worth the cost.

It is said that autonomous vehicles would be programmed to stop whenever someone steps into their path. That would effectively turn all roadways into zebra crossings, and would not be tolerated since gridlock would result. The response then would be to restrict pedestrians to identified crossing points, markedly reducing walking’s attractiveness, which depends crucially on the freedom of movement it confers.

‘Technical glitches’ must be allowed for. Although their advocates claim that autonomous vehicles would ‘eliminate’ crash risk through eliminating human error, machines do go wrong (possibly at least as often as human beings make errors). Darker possibilities also emerge in debate as to where priority lies when autonomous vehicle occupants and those outside the vehicle ‘cannot both be saved’ in an impending crash.

Cyclists, being smaller than cars, may not be easily detected, especially where they are not positioned centrally in a traffic stream. To survive among autonomous vehicles they may need to either be on separate paths or cycle ‘vehicularly’ (i.e. ‘behave like a car’). Both these may constrain cyclists’ freedom of movement.

‘Low-powered vehicles’ (e.g. e-scooters and the like) are sometimes seen as a ‘green’ substitute for conventional motor vehicles. Such data as does exist seems to show that some people travel by e-scooters instead of walking. The assumption that these devices will use footpaths, rather than roadways, will also inevitably deter some people from walking, besides their potential to threaten pedestrian safety.

New technology, like any innovation, must be made to ‘earn its keep’ under proper and realistic scrutiny. An important factor in this should be its likely effects on the majorly beneficial walking and cycling.