How cities can prepare for autonomous driving

By Monika Zimmermann,  Deputy Secretary General, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability & Michael Glotz-Richter, Senior Project Manager “Sustainable Mobility”, City of Bremen, Germany

The content of this article reflects the personal opinions of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of ICLEI- Local Governments for Sustainability.

There is a need for a much stronger debate on autonomous driving and related impacts on urban mobility and on our cities. Therefore we call upon local governments to engage in this debate.

Autonomous driving technologies are on the rise. While these emerging technologies present many risks (see our blog “Why cities should engage with autonomous driving”), they also might offer a historic opportunity to transform urban mobility systems.

The following action steps can help local and regional governments manage emerging autonomous driving technologies in a way that supports their sustainability goals and respect the principles of sustainable urban development:

  • Local governments should promote a shift from individual car ownership to new models of shared mobility and municipally operated mobility service models. This move towards “Mobility as a Service, “MaaS” – watch out for a session on MaaS at the upcoming EcoMobility World Congress 2017 ( in Kaohsiung – offers a model in which fleet-based services will replace the less practical, more space consuming and much more expensive private car ownership model. Single ownership of autonomous vehicles does not make sense. Instead, fleet-based service could be managed publicly and operated through existing or newly founded public transport companies.
Well visible Car-Sharing station in Bremen / Photo by Michael Glotz-Richter
  • Local governments should extend and strengthen existing public transport systems. A city with autonomous cars will still require high capacity collective transport systems to avoid an “autonomous collapse”, a situation where the increase in mileage travelled by autonomous cars could lead to wide spread congestion. In short, all existing transport needs plus new transport volumes cannot be shifted to driverless cars.

In low density areas, local governments will need to integrate high capacity collective transport services with feeder services.  Driverless and flexible mini-bus services could fulfill such functions.

Routes and interchange stations which are already being planned need to be designed with such autonomous services in mind.

  • Local governments should take the opportunity to build comprehensive urban mobility systems with intelligent cooperation between various modes of transport. This is a challenge as diverse interests have to be incorporated. Creating such systems requires good governance, new metropolitan or inter-city governance bodies and innovative operational approaches.
  • Local governments need to (co-)develop new policy instruments to incentivize the use of collective modes of transport and ride-sharing over the individually used driverless taxi. There are two main means to influence people’s behavior in such new transport modeling: time and costs.

First, speed limits must be set and enforced for autonomous cars in urban areas. Collective transport modes should allow faster travel in comparison to the “driverless taxi” which may offer a more convenient door-to-door service.

Second, road usage fees for autonomous vehicles can be designed in a way that fleet-based use, ride-sharing and efficient use of the vehicles is privileged. New road usage payment systems can also be adjusted to reflect peak travel time. Assuming that these vehicles will be primarily electric, today’s mineral oil tax revenues need to be replaced by new fiscal systems.

  • Today’s urban planners must prepare to convert the space that is no longer needed for roads and parking. Road space is not just transport space but potential space for communication, for leisure, for business activities and ecological functions.

Smart fleet-based services – individual car ownership here being seen as “not-smart” – can reduce space needed for parking and instead can allow this space to be converted into public space, or even land for building urgently needed housing. Therefore, each planning and investment decision made today requires transport and city planners to create road and parking solutions that can be easily converted once they are not required for parking anymore. This applies to on-street parking lanes as well as parking garages.

  • Local governments should encourage and promote car sharing models which are extremely helpful in pioneering new mobility paradigms. We do not have to wait for autonomous cars when thinking about a more efficient use of space and money.

Car-sharing concepts available today are providing many benefits and have the potential to reduce the demand for private cars as well as expensive parking garages. Some cities such as Bremen and Freiburg in Germany have successfully designating public parking spaces for shared cars with the goal that all inhabitants can reach such a vehicle within 200-400 meters.

While new types of automated vehicles can accelerate the trend towards sharing, the ecological and social benefits come from “sharing”, not from the automation.

Car sharing station in convenient proximity in a neighborhood in Bremen. Photo by Michael Glotz-Richter
  • New tasks for urban planning: Small, light, right-sized vehicles are the future of urban mobility. Many new types of vehicles are being developed, such as pedelecs, cargo bikes, e-scooters, three wheel stand-up scooters, segways, electric minicars and velocabs. ”Right-size” vehicles describe vehicles of different size and character that can serve different needs. If someone needs to transport a cupboard, they might rent or use a different car than if they have to bring a child to the doctor. Instead of upsizing cars, as is currently happening with growing amounts of SUVs on urban roads, we need to downsize their shape, weight and speed, thereby gaining enormous emissions, space and equity benefits.

Local governments need to plan for a new generation of vehicle design that allows for adjusted use of various vehicles rather than individual ownership of just one. They will also have to re-allocate road space to integrate such new vehicles in a safe way. Indeed, while fast e-bikes are problematic on bike lanes, small e-cars are not feel safe on urban motorways.

Mixing or separating different means of transport requires new regulations, new plans, new realities and new enforcement to the benefit of all traffic participants. As ever, this planning process will require discussion with users, observation of traffic and real practices at the street level and ultimately innovative approaches.

  • Local governments do not have to wait for autonomous cars to achieve better road safety. General speed limits and area-wide “tempo 30” show excellent results. Additionally, existing driver assistance systems enable maximum driving speeds to match given speed limits when navigation systems are linked to cruise control.
  • Local governments need to care for data. Huge amounts of traffic data are collected, with a trend to further grow. Governments need to prepare themselves to ensure privacy and data security and help citizens to protect their data rights. At the same time, they should critically ask themselves which data are really necessary and to what extent they need to be collected and stored.
  • Lastly, with all of the excitement around new transport technologies, we all must not forget the most affordable, natural and efficient mode of transport: walking. In a time of autonomous transport, forms of active transport are increasingly important to support livable, healthy and sustainable cities.

It is important to mention that such actions cannot be achieved by cities alone. National governments have a legislative role to play and private companies throw new products on the market. Cities need exchange and cooperation and can best achieve this through the networks and associations in which they participate.

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