NACTO releases Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism

By Robbie Webber

The National Association of City Transportation Officials has released a guide for cities to prepare for a future with autonomous vehicles. Unlike their previous design guides for bikeways, transit, storm water, and overall streets, this blueprint does not present specific design recommendations but instead lays out a vision of how to enhance the city with autonomous technology instead of simply adapting to it.

“The Blueprint outlines the physical and policy steps that cities could take to ensure that their streets can be reimagined and redesigned to improve safety, prioritize people and public space, strengthen the role of mass transit and manage the contested curb as automated vehicles arrive on city streets.”

Commenters and prognosticators have attempted to envision how autonomous vehicles will change our communities, with the competing visions of “heaven or hell” laid out by Robin Chase in a widely-read CityLab article. NACTO is determined to get ahead of the curve and manage AVs and other emerging technologies to improve cities.

The Blueprint is envisioned as a series, and will adapt as new technologies emerge and evolve. The first module focuses on three issues with which cities are already grappling, even before the mass arrival of AVs.

  • Designing for Safety focuses on how to make streets primarily public spaces for people. Managed and designed correctly, autonomous technology should allow more frequent and convenient pedestrian crossings via slower, steadier, and more predictable vehicular movements; narrower lanes; fewer lanes; and more shared space. In order to achieve this goal, walking and bicycling need to be prioritized over low-occupancy motor vehicles.
  • New Mobility Systems covers how to assure that fixed-route transit continues to be the backbone of urban mobility. Dedicated lanes, new transit technologies, and managed access to roadway space will keep high-occupancy vehicles moving. Integrating new modes and options for first- and last-mile connections will improve transit access for the larger city.
  • Curbside Management is already an emerging issue in many cities. The Blueprint provides guidance on policies, street designs, and pricing incentives for cities that can transform curb space into areas that can be dynamically available for more diverse and valuable uses, including transit, bike lanes, bike share stations, “parklets”, green infrastructure, freight deliveries, and passenger pick-up/drop-off zones.

 

Planned future modules will expand on these topics and add chapters on roadway pricing, data partnerships with the private sector, regional planning, designing autonomous networks, autonomous freight delivery needs, and off-street parking.

The suggested changes in the NACTO guide could significantly transform urban areas, and are consistent with NACTO’s past emphasis on streets that prioritize transit, walking, biking, and public spaces over personal vehicles and vehicle throughput. There is no doubt that regardless of whether cities follow these suggestions, AVs will transform our communities. But the changes to both traffic management and the cultural shifts needed to bring about their vision are substantial and the infrastructure changes needed will not come cheaply.

SSTI has also written about a new report emphasizing that cities may need to start thinking about new revenue sources and practices that focus on value capture and livability. AV technology is moving rapidly, and cities will need to start making changes sooner rather than later if they are to achieve the vision laid out in the newest NACTO guide.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.