Planning for autonomous vehicles in mid-sized cities
Autonomous vehicles are getting closer to hitting the streets. But how may they affect mid-sized cities like Champaign-Urbana?
Illinois Center for Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation investigate this question in a joint project, “R27-211: Policies and Design Guidelines to Plan for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.”
Arnab Chakraborty and Lindsay Braun, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor and assistant professor, respectively, lead the project with Shawn Wilcockson, IDOT’s natural resources unit chief.
The three are joined by Ouafa Benkraouda, a UIUC doctoral candidate in urban and regional planning.
One of the key challenges to connected and autonomous vehicles is the many uncertainties surrounding their adoption, such as how quickly the technology will become widely available, people’s perceptions of the technology and how travel behavior might change.
To prepare for these uncertainties, the researchers turn to scenario planning — a technique that allows them to work systematically with uncertainty to create a range of possible outcomes and estimated impacts.
Those impacts for autonomous vehicles may not only include how we travel, but also how communities are designed and function.
For Chakraborty, learning from the past is key to rolling out the emerging technology effectively and equitably.
“The way we have developed our transportation systems in the past have helped define the American landscape about suburbanization and helped create increased access to land and different flows, but it has also led to long commutes, fragmented communities and massive environmental costs,” Chakraborty said.
One way to reduce negative impacts is to center emerging needs around communities.
“Self-driving cars promise or threaten, depending on how you look at it, to overhaul our transportation system,” Chakraborty said. “It is important that we think about the needs of our communities as central to this transformation as we plan for this rather than focusing on the needs of the vehicles or drivers alone.”
To determine and understand key uncertainties about the emerging technology, the researchers reviewed existing academic sources, policies and design guidelines, and long-range transportation plans.
They also interviewed planners and stakeholders in six mid-sized communities in Illinois as well as surveyed approximately 700 households in Peoria about their current use of transportation and attitude toward the emerging technology.
Through their efforts, they developed a framework that they refined in a series of workshops with Illinois stakeholders in mid-sized cities.
The framework identifies four key uncertainties — type of ownership, mode of transportation, adoption rate and electric vehicle shares — and builds four scenarios for autonomous vehicles in the future.
The scenarios range from a future where most drivers will own private autonomous vehicles to futures where autonomous vehicles are shared among drivers and supplement transit or other forms of transportation.
Key to helping planners of mid-sized cities effectively deploy this technology is a handbook developed by Chakraborty, Braun and Benkraouda for planners and stakeholders in mid-sized cities.
The handbook organizes guidelines and policies for autonomous vehicles into six categories — general data, design, mobility and traffic, street design, infrastructure, and planning.
It allows users to focus their search on different issues or topics to identify what policies and design guidelines are most relevant or of interest to them.
Braun notes that the planning approaches that come out of the ICT-IDOT project will need to be re-evaluated and updated as communities move forward with the technology.
“We’re not deciding today that this is what we are going to do for the next 40 years,” Braun said. “We’re deciding today what are we going to do now to prepare for the next 40 years and having a plan in place to be able to adjust when some of those uncertainties become clearer.”
For Illinois, the first state to examine the impact of connected and autonomous vehicles on mid-sized cities, the vehicles can also bring economic benefits.
“With a significant number of mid-sized cities looking to gain economic advantages by exploring emerging technologies to replace lost manufacturing, Illinois is open for these cities to not only explore this technology in theory, but also be able to leverage it for workforce of the future and population retention,” Wilcockson said.