A heavy focus on cars has left central Auckland surrounded by motorways. Photo: Al404

The switch to driverless cars is going to happen faster than we think. The University of Auckland’s Bill McKay explains what this could mean for New Zealand cities. 

Cars have come to define 20th century cities and moving them around town has been a priority for a long time. The result of this in Auckland is a moat of motorway surrounding the CBD, while Wellington and Dunedin are both cut off from their harbours by busy roads and highways. 

Although many New Zealanders come back from overseas marvelling at the public transport and walkable cities they enjoyed abroad, once home they can’t wait to get back into their cars and drive themselves from A to B as quickly as possible.

It’s not just the movement of cars and the build-up of traffic that has had a profound effect on our cities. Car parking has contributed to urban sprawl in and around our towns and cities, eating up swathes of space that could have been used for housing. 

Housing zones have required space for the parking and turning of two cars, yet again using up space that could be better utilised for house or garden. The concrete and asphalt used on our roads contribute to inner-city warming in summer, while stormwater flowing into our rivers and harbours is severely contaminated by minerals from diesel, petrol and the asphalt itself.  

It is fair to say that asphalt and the cars it carries have a lot to answer for – but change isn’t far away. Driverless and autonomous cars will be here sooner than we think, and the benefits to our cities will be huge. 

Few people know that Queen Street follows the path of an old stream, the Wai Horotiu. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to daylight that stream and bring some of the original indigenous landscape back into what is a concrete canyon? 

The key thing that is going to happen once electric and driverless cars become commonplace is that we are going to see fewer cars on the road. You won’t park your autonomous; it will be off being a driverless Uber. With a glut of these available, car ownership will drop. Already we are seeing people using Uber for their daily commute; it’s more expensive than taking a bus, but it’s cheaper than running your own car. One report predicts that in 15 years only 20 percent of Americans will own a car.

And the result of fewer cars? Firstly, we will need much less space devoted to parking. Car parks could become parks and urban orchards to provide space for shade, cooling and CO2 absorption. Or they could be turned into public places for markets, exchanges and other urban projects on the lines of those organised by Christchurch’s Gap Filler – a series of installations, events and amenities which occupy the spaces left by demolished buildings.  Any necessary car parking will be via robotic stackers – and if that sounds farfetched, visit the carpark under Ironbank in Auckland’s Karangahape Rd.

Cars will be charged at home overnight, so what will happen to petrol stations? 

Big forecourts mean some could become sites for markets – farmers’, night or weekend markets – and food truck venues. Others could become sites for medium density apartments, and as most are on arterial roads with good bus routes, the locations would be ideal.

Public charging stations will be in places where we want to spend time, for example, in malls and supermarkets. And in the meantime, research is well underway for wireless charging lanes on highways so you won’t even have to stop.

Driverless or autonomous cars will mean lanes will be narrower and fewer and we will lose the distinction between footpath, cycle lane and roadway. And all that paint on the roads and signage will go, reducing ugly visual clutter.

The drive experience will be brisker and steadier rather than stop/go and the movement of these driverless cars will be dance-like at intersections. It is likely we will see more roundabouts; traffic light waits will be quicker and we will, eventually, lose them. 

What this all means is that, in the future, pedestrians will have more right-of-way in urban locations, ending a century of cars dominating streets. And once we realise that autonomous cars mean more efficient traffic management and travel times, this will add to pressure to ban human drivers from city centres and high traffic urban areas. This policy will be the tipping point and we will see more regulation saying who and what can drive, and where.

People may think I am being fanciful about the future – but look at Seoul in South Korea for fabulous examples of urban design and what can be done with old motorways. Cheonggyecheon is a long, linear public space created around a daylighted river, previously buried by concrete and a motorway now demolished. SEUOLLO 7017 Sky Garden is an elevated motorway turned into pedestrian route with gardens, similar to Manhattan’s Highline which turned a train track into a celebrated public walk way and garden. 

In Auckland we already have the ‘pink path’, a cycleway partially built on a redundant motorway ramp.  But what about Queen Street? Few people know that Queen Street follows the path of an old stream, the Wai Horotiu. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to daylight that stream and bring some of the original indigenous landscape back into what is a concrete canyon? 

The fact is, these changes will happen faster than we think. Once we see autonomous cars on motorways, regulations and policies will be introduced to meet the changing needs of our cities and towns. It’s worth remembering, Manhattan went from horses to vehicles in just 13 years. 

Bill McKay is a senior lecturer in the University of Auckland's School of Architecture and Planning.

Leave a comment