Principles of Design: Do We Need to Share Our Ideals Before We Can Share Our Roads?

By: Bridget Clerkin February 22, 2018
A group of transportation companies and non-profits envisioning the future of transportation picture cities with shared vehicles and an emphasis on public transit.
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What happens when the U.S.—a country tailor-built to support infrastructural and industrial networks aimed at individual transportation—meets a seemingly unstoppable force for change that brings with it a paradigm shift toward communal travel?

The real-life riddle is one even leading minds in the automotive industry are struggling to solve, as they’re increasingly forced to reckon with the imminent impact of autonomous cars.

While no one can say with certainty what the future holds, experts are venturing guesses as to what the landscape will look like in the aftermath of the self-driving revolution—and even the most modest suggestions paint a very different picture from today.

One possible shift most agree upon is the decline of individual vehicle ownership in the wake of autonomous automobiles, which are far more efficient when used to continually fetch and drop off passengers rather than left to sit idly in what would become a needless parking space or driveway. The cars would be owned, operated, and dispatched in fleets managed by the technology firms and auto manufacturers responsible for building the machines, many have predicted.

But as the world’s rides become increasingly shared, so should its transportation goals, according to a clutch of corporate citizens responsible for moving much of the planet’s people.

Rather than let the coming wave of new technology merely wash away today’s transit designs, some of the industry’s biggest players have signed on to take a more active role in shaping its effect on future development through a newly established set of business guidelines known as the Shared Mobility Principles of Livable Cities.

A Group Effort

Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase.

Robin Chase, co-founder of on-demand car rental company Zipcar, developed the concept for the guidelines last fall, working with a number of leading transportation think tanks—including the C40 Climate Leadership Group, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Shared-Use Mobility Center—to help compose the rules.

Working off the general idea that city streets represent a “finite resource” that must be carefully managed or else suffer the perils of congestion and pollution, the international consortium settled on 10 general principles to form the underpinnings of what they believe will be the most responsible plan for transitioning to an autonomous future.

The ideals recently spread to the private sector, with 15 of the world’s top technology and transportation firms, including rideshare giants Uber and Lyft, signing on to uphold them. The additional support ties the group to 77 million daily passenger trips across the globe.

So, what messages are the corporate citizens hoping to spread?

Responsibility Wish List

A bulk of the Shared Mobility Principles of Livable Cities revolve around the importance of careful planning, with the first three principles dedicated to urban development goals.

The rules purport that cities must grow and change in tandem with the evolving autonomous car technology, paying special attention to the distribution—or, more likely, future redistribution—of public spaces, parking lots, and on-street parking. 

Future transit plans and policies should encourage more walking, biking, and public transportation, minimizing the opportunity to travel via personal car or oversized vehicle. 

Compact and sustainable infrastructure should be a main focus, with future plans and policies encouraging more walking, biking, and use of public transportation while minimizing opportunity or incentive to travel via personal car or oversized vehicle, according to the suggestions.

To truly allow the technology to reach its fullest potential for transformative change, the vehicles should be considered a public good and made available to potential passengers regardless of age, gender, income, or ability, another guideline proposes.

And as a vehicle for change on behalf of society, autonomous cars should do as little harm to that society as possible—including environmentally, the rules dictate, setting the goal of creating a zero-emissions future.

The trips should also contribute to communities directly, with the vehicles held financially accountable for their wear and tear on the roads. While the principles don’t flesh out how to achieve that goal—or who exactly would be responsible for the roadway usage fees—the idea has been at the center of a small surge of experiments lately, including trial runs of new tolls and taxes in Virginia and Oregon.

But even as the communal rides appeal to—and encapsulate—more members of society, the cars should refrain from capturing too much data on their passengers, the guidelines state. Purveyors of the autonomous vehicle fleets will be accountable for the digital privacy and security of their passengers when dealing with the cache of personal information the autos will be privy to.

Building the world of the future is never easy, but at least mobility companies now have a set of blueprints to reference.

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