Autonomous vehicles: How cities can learn from the past

C40 Executive Director Mark Watts urges city transport planners and politicians to get ahead of the game and start mapping out new rules for driverless roads.

By Mark Watts

For more than a decade, C40 has been working with cities to develop and share policies and practices that help address climate change. We know that technological innovations cannot, in isolation, solve the challenges that cities face. Autonomous vehicle (AVs) technology is advancing at such a rate that it is now only a matter of time until AVs become the norm. City transport planners and politicians need to get ahead of the technology companies and start mapping out new rules for driverless roads. AVs are not a magic bullet to cut emissions or reduce traffic. However, with the right policies and regulations, they can certainly be part of the solution.

None of the benefits are guaranteed

The potential social benefits of AVs are huge; including fewer road accidents, increased productivity for passengers, and improved access for people with limited mobility. Crucial for the climate is that AVs are electric powered. This could significantly reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated in cities and help tackle the air quality crisis facing so many cities around the world.


However, none of these benefits are guaranteed. Cities that simply replace roads congested by conventional vehicles, with roads congested by AVs will have missed a huge opportunity. It is crucial that city governments create and enforce policies and regulations to maximize the potential for AVs to deliver social and environmental benefits.

The most sustainable, prosperous and livable cities of the future will be those that avoid urban sprawl and create compact and accessible communities. 

The aim: Shared zero-emission transit

A journey taken by a private electric-powered AV will be less damaging to the environment than the equivalent trip in a conventional, non-electric car. However, the same journey taken by shared zero-emission transit, cycling, or walking, would have an even lower impact. If the ambition of every wealthy citizen becomes to own their own private AV, in which they can work or relax, and the city is designed to benefit these users, the number of mass transit users will fall, revenues will be cut and buses, trams and trains risk becoming a socially segregated transport mode for the less privileged.


Many cities saw this trend in previous decades when they were redesigned to prioritize private cars. The social and environmental effects were as problematic as the chronic congestion it caused. I grew up in an era when the then British Prime Minister said “If you see a man on a bus aged over 30, you know you are looking at a failure”. Huge investment in the bus and underground system in London overcame that prejudice and we don’t want to go back to it. It would be madness to repeat the same mistakes again, simply because of the novelty of AV technology.

Why cities need one another

The most sustainable, prosperous and livable cities of the future will be those that avoid urban sprawl and create compact and accessible communities. For policy makers that means incentivizing shared transit, walking and cycling over private vehicles, whether AV or not. Cities need to be in the driving seat of the AV transformation. For that, cities need access to information, tools and experts to understand and anticipate the arrival of AVs. But most importantly, cities need one another – only through collective and collaborative action can cities influence and shape the AV disruption for the public good.


The AV revolution is coming at a moment in history when our cities need to be transformed to ensure they deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement and create sustainable, prosperous and healthy communities for their citizens.


That opportunity is too good to miss.


What impact will connected and autonomous vehicles have on the future of urban mobility? What are the risks and benefits and how can we make the most out of them? The report “Cities in the Driving Seat” stresses the need for cities to plan early and tackle the issue in a wider context of mobility transformations.


The study explores the interdependencies between urban development, public transportation policies, power supply, pollution and the increasing share of CAV in city traffic. Lack of midterm planning and delayed investments in infrastructure could create negative social, economic and environmental effects, the authors from Siemens’ Global Center of Competence Cities argue.


Get the full report here!

Mark Watts has served as the Executive Director for C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group since December 2013. Prior to joining C40, Mark was the Director of consultancy firm, Arup’s, energy and climate change team.


Earlier in his career, he was the climate change and sustainable transport adviser to the Mayor of London, in which role the London Evening Standard described him as “the intellectual force behind Ken Livingstone’s drive to make London a leading light of the battle against global warming.”


Mark is a Senior Associate of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, a member of the Council of the Global Green Growth Institute, and a member of the Yale Climate Dialogue.

C40 has grown to become one of the most effective organizations addressing climate change. C40’s 96 megacity members account for over 700 million citizens. But looking beyond this number, C40’s members are also where climate action is most feasible and most innovative. Member cities produce more than a quarter of global GDP and act as examples to other urban areas.


Together, the C40 cities have taken over 10,000 climate actions and are forecast to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by three gigatonnes of CO2 by 2030. The ambitious target of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius will only be possible with the coordinated action of the C40 cities.

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