Cities scaling up efforts on autonomous vehicles

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A growing number of cities around the world are getting ready for a future where autonomous vehicles, or AVs, share the roads.

According to a recent update of the Global Atlas of AVs in Cities, 126 cities are now either piloting self-driving vehicles or looking into the regulatory, planning, and governance issues associated with them. That’s up from 53 cities just a year and a half ago.

Meanwhile, city leaders may have more time than expected to prepare, as the arrival of AVs on a mass scale has hit speed bumps. Technical glitches, a high-profile fatal accident, and other setbacks have pushed back expectations of when self-driving cars are likely to be commonplace. “AVs are not developing as quickly as people expected two years ago,” said Anthony Townsend, whose research forms the backbone of the AVs Atlas. “It’s giving more cities more time to prepare in more thoughtful ways.”

AVs are expected to cause widespread impacts in cities — changing the calculus on everything from traffic congestion to parking needs to road safety. The AVs Atlas, a project of the Bloomberg Aspen Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles, shows how cities are reviewing their road safety rules, updating taxi regulations, and assessing how AVs can help fill gaps in their transit networks.

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A good example is Seattle, whose Department of Transportation developed a policy framework for addressing the transition to AVs. That framework — an appendix to the city’s “New Mobility Playbook” — lays out principles city leaders want to see advanced as AVs arrive. For example, streets should prioritize people over vehicles, and AV-enabled services should improve choices for people with mobility impairments or non-traditional schedules and should reverse racial and social injustices.

Policy and planning efforts like Seattle’s are growing more systematic, long-term, and authoritative, according to Townsend, reflecting a desire among cities to assert their mobility goals rather than make concessions to AV companies. Louisville, Ky., and Toronto, Canada, also have launched wide-ranging policy frameworks for AVs.

At the same time, Townsend said, pilots of AVs on city streets are becoming more ambitious and varied than small-scale tests initiated a couple of years ago.

For example, the regional transit authority in the Phoenix area is partnering with Waymo on a service to whisk some passengers to and from transit stations. Similar shuttles that are running in the Swiss cities of Schaffhausen and Geneva are gradually becoming integrated into the local public transit networks. Full-length self-driving buses have arrived in Singapore and Edinburgh, while Tsukuba, Japan, is running an experiment to see if a self-driving bus combined with autonomous pod cars can help its aging population get around.

And the pilots aren’t limited to moving people: Memphis is testing autonomous delivery vehicles for FedEx, and Miami is testing their use for shipping takeout orders, flowers, and dry cleaning.

The AVs Atlas includes information on these and other city-led efforts in 25 countries. The latest update includes data on new city activities, as well as charts and graphs breaking down trends and patterns in the approaches cities are taking.

“Consolidating this information in one place aims to make it easy for city leaders around the world to quickly learn from each other,” said Stacey Gillett, with the Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation team. “That’s a need that will only grow more important as cities get more strategic about how they approach disruptive technologies.”

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