Driverless cars could cause ‘mega sprawl’ urbanisation

Town planners must prepare for the potential of driverless cars to cause massive urban sprawl and resultant damage to wildlife and green spaces, a research fellow at Oxford University has warned.

Timothy Hodgetts, research fellow in the Geopolitics of Wildlife Conservation, University of Oxford, has warned that a future of driverless cars ‘is likely to result in the mega cities of the 20th century becoming the mega sprawls of the 21st’.

Writing in The Conversation he goes on to suggest that ‘new zoning laws to protect wider areas of countryside’ may be necessary, as well as more road tunnels with green areas built above them.

He states: ‘Nature conservationists and planners need to think hard about the impact of driverless vehicles, most notably in terms of renewed urban sprawl. The limiting factor in suburban spread is often travel time, either by public or private means. Driverless cars fundamentally alter the equation.

‘It’s the very efficiency of driverless cars that poses a challenge for planners and conservationists. The threat is an unchecked increase in low-density urbanisation.’

He adds: ‘Existing planning policies are based on our current transport systems. Green-belts, for example, are designed to reduce urban sprawl by restricting development within a buffer zone around an urban area.

‘However, the reduced transport times offered by driverless cars make it easier to live outside the belt while still working inside. So these loops of green are in danger of becoming a thin layer in a sandwich of ever-spreading suburbanisation.’

Mr Hodgetts outlines two potential directions for town planning; land-sparing, where people are concentrated into urban areas and vast tracts of land are set aside for nature; and land-sharing, where communities co-exist alongside wildlife.

He suggests autonomous vehicles provide challenges to both such systems.

Oxford University is a leading voice in autonomous science and has worked with the city council on research and trials.

Earlier this year, Oxbotica – a spin-out from Oxford University – announced an ambitious new project that will deploy fully autonomous vehicles in urban areas and on motorways in the next 30 months.

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Planning has done a pretty good job at preventing sprawl these past 70 years, to the point of strangling cities and their natural growth. London’s (to use the biggest example) physical expansion pretty much stopped in the 1950s – which was fine when the population was falling (as it did until the mid-1980s) but 30 years of failing to plan for population growth has caused misery and falling living standards for many of those younger than middle-aged due to exorbitant housing prices and exactly the kinds of of long-distance commutes being predicted above.

Green belts up to 30 miles wide *should* be thinned in places.