All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth. Ooh and an autonomous vehicle

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  • All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth. Ooh and an autonomous vehicle

So it is that time of year, when everyone is rushing around trying to find the perfect gift for the loved ones. The ‘it’ gift for 2015 was the hoverboard. And if we were to look at the most talked about things in 2016, you would hazard a guess to say that the must have gift for 2016 would be an autonomous vehicle… well maybe 2016 is ambitious, but it is definitely realistic for AVs to be the must have gifts of 2020.

Initially everyone wanted a Hoverboard and they were all so cool – at least until January, when we realised that some of them had a tendency to catch on fire. So like the hoverboards, perhaps we should have a think about potential unintended consequences or problems that could arise from a large roll out of AVs in our cities.

Speaking at the AILA and Smart Cities Council ANZ ‘Streets 2.0’ event earlier this month, Place Design Group Executive Director of Planning, Chris Isles posed the question, “are we being captivated by the ‘shiny lights’ of autonomous vehicles (AVs) rather than stopping to consider the basics of streets and cities”.

This discussion, and the future of our streets, was key to the Streets 2.0 agenda. Chris said Australia, along with the rest of the world, was being distracted by autonomous vehicles (AVs) and was forgetting the fundamentals of city planning, by way of creating great places and letting the benefits of AVs be the cherry on top.

“There is a real risk that Autonomous Vehicles could get away from us and radically impact our cities, if we don’t control the cities agenda and how AV’s make our cities better, rather than just being a technology innovation”.

With as many as 10 million self-driving cars estimated to be on the road by 2020, town planners, landscape architect, urban designers and traffic engineers alike are expressing a cautious tone to balance the clear opportunities that AV’s will bring, to ensure the future of Australian cities and towns is a positive one.

Chris believes that cars are not the cause of our city woes, but it is in fact us, as the inhabitants – our increasingly lazy behaviours, and our planning and approaches to zoning that have all but stopped us making cities the way we used to when cities and streets were in their ‘glory days’.

“Yes, there are many positives of AVs as well, but these may not necessarily materialise in cities, unless we facilitate autonomous, shared, connected and electric vehicles. If we all ride to work in our private AV’s, there is a risk that AVs could clog our streets in two directions – as they drop us at work and as they head home – and there is a significant risk that this wouldn’t make our cities more liveable and connected, but more congested, fragmented and sprawling. They could very well be ‘game changing’, but not necessarily in a good way. “

The first of its kind in Australia, the ‘Streets 2.0’ event brought industry experts together to discuss what’s next for Australia’s streets and cities; in particular, contemplating the impacts and opportunities presented by new technology, autonomous vehicles, complete streets and a renewed urban greening agenda.

Adam Beck the Executive Director of the Smart Cities Council and the convenor of the day said the built environment and city’s professions had been notably absent from this discussion for too long.

“Streets 2.0 was developed to provide the opportunity to engage in this space, if we don’t start to actively do this as professionals there is a huge risk that the thinking and agenda will get away from us and who knows what kind of perverse outcomes might slip through if people and cities are not put first.”

Hosted in Sydney as the first for the series, the array of panellists from across Australia included Tim Williams, City of Sydney, Steven Burgess, MR Caney, Chris Isles, Place Design Group, Jess Christensen-Franks, Co Design Melbourne, Chris Tidsell, Hassell, Brook Dixon, ACT Government, Sara Stace Linkplace, Alex Harrington, The Warren Centre, Megan Sharkey, University of Newcastle, Michelle Cramer, Lend Lease, Nick Austin, Divvy Parking, and Pramod Basavaraj, Bosch. All agreed they were not convinced that AVs in their own right would have the city-changing ‘benefits’ that are being widely spruiked by so many, but equally that our streets and how to create great streets and places for people to live, work and play shouldn’t be forgotten as we move into a new technical era.

Chris noted during his keynote address, “We knew how to ‘do’ streets once, and that we need to ensure that we continue to place emphasis and value in streets as places of commerce, social interaction and life in our cities.” The emerging smart cities agenda, will allow our streets to become our data collection centres, and the emerging technical and computing power available to planners and city shapers means now more than ever we will have the ability to make informed decisions about our cities, based on ‘live’ city models. We are not far away from the ‘self aware’ city that is itself autonomous.

“It’s critical that we ensure the discussion and debate has people at its core, and we are working towards solutions that will improve our cities for the residents, not necessarily just going down a technology route for the sake of technology,” he said.

Careful and considered use and adoption of AV technology into our cities balanced against a return to the ‘streets’ and treating our streets as city assets will ensure that perhaps the must have gift for each Christmas is just the ‘best streets’ in the world, vibrant communities and a little bit of tech from Santa to make it fun.

Chris Isles was named 2015 Australian Planner of the Year, and is a 2016-2018 World Cities Summit Young Leader.