The Centre BLOG pre-launch continues with an overview of Stockholm’s transport challenges

Are driverless cars a threat to sustainable cities and transport planning?

Jonas Eliasson, KTH professor in transport and Director of the Centre for Transport Studies, used his presentation at the KTH Attractive City workshop to give an overview of transport strategies for attractive cities. As well as examining current concerns such as better public transport, Jonas looks in to the future, reflecting on how driverless cars might affect urban planning. Its not all good news.

This presentation was given in Swedish  – a sumary of the key points in English can be found beow. It’s recorded by the Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment at KTH.

Presentation in Swedish:

Summary in English:

Jonas draws attention to the way in which our cities have spread over the past thirty years, first through the development of city suburbs and second through the development of connected regions where a person might commute into the city from a near-by town. This has led to people making more and longer journeys – both for work and leisure. In turn, this has led to congestion. It is only over the past 10 years that cities have started to build at greater density in their centres; whilst this is desirable for reducing transport congestion, of course, we still have the needs of the existing city to deal with as well as an ever-growing demand for travel.

Jonas puts forward four principles that can help a city address congestion. First he argues for attractive public transport. Public transport must be convenient, safe and affordable so that people choose to use it. Second, “walkability” is vital, especially around public transport interchanges and people must be able to transfer easily from the public transport network to their destination. This leads to the third principle, compact planning. Fourth Jonas adds that, even if the city invests in all these measures, it must also act to limit car traffic so that this becomes a less desirable mode of transport. When applied together these four principles make a substantial different to the accessibility of a city and the flow of traffic. Though it can be argued that cities that manage to solve the congestion problem become more attractive to people and thus increase their populations, bringing about another wave of congestion. Transport and urban planning is a continual process, not a single solution.

Jonas also reflects on the impact that driverless cars might have on urban planning and city transport systems. Whilst he thinks that driverless cars might make long distance travel e.g. on motorways, more efficient, Jonas doubts that they will make city travel more effective as the problem is a simple lack of road space, regardless of who or what drives the car. What could change urban planning is having cars that drive off to park themselves outside the centre after delivering their passengers – this would free up car parks and also roadside parking spaces, allowing for new types of urban development. Jonas is cautious though, commenting that we might make use of driverless cars to extend commute times and spread cities by choosing to live outside of the city and work on our longer commutes as our driverless cars motor us in to the city.

Jonas concludes his lecture by reflecting on the situation in Stockholm. He is keen that we re-think urban and transport planning in the outer suburbs of the city. These suburbs were largely built in the post war period and designed with car use in mind. Today they are dominated by car parking facilities and spread out housing, neither of which are conducive of a productive (or pleasant) environment. Walkable, more compact neighbourhoods that connect to public transport nodes would give these suburbs a new burst of life.          

Note: this presentation was given on a sunny day and occasionally the audience was not able to see Jonas’ slides well. He references this in his lecture – even though the slides are easy to see on the video.