A recent headline noted that Uber’s autonomous cars may be a danger to bicyclists. But, that was short-lived. Autonomous cars are on track to be a bicyclists BFF (bicycles best friend).
During the seven day pilot in San Francisco, test vehicles made some unsafe right-hook turns. Note: there were no injuries or mishaps. In SF, autonomous cars presented a hazard, but not for long. The cars will “learn” new rules for crossing bicycle lanes. And, as autonomous cars reach a critical mass, they will also grow the critical mass for bikers.
First, some history. In a book titled “The Roads Were Not Built for Cars,” author Carlton Reid notes that drivers have forgotten about the debt they owe to the bicycle: it was cyclists who lobbied, and gained, flat roads more than 100 years ago. The first standards for road surfaces and geometry were designed for cyclists. Mobility then took an unexpected turn, and the horseless carriage “co-opted” the paved space, pushing out bicycle riders.
In the coming era of autonomous vehicles, bicycles have an opportunity to regain their lost roads, and cycle back to an earlier time.
There are several reasons why autonomous vehicles pave the way (pun intended) back to bicycles:
First, there will be a resurgence of bicycle riding as autonomous vehicles make the roads safer for all modes. Unlike human drivers, autonomous cars are programmed to obey the speed limit, seek caution making right hand turns, and avoid being too proximate to any object, including bikes. The roadways will become safer and the technology will reduce the number of cyclists involved in an accident with a motor vehicle; in 2014 there were 726 needless deaths and more than 50,000 injuries. Improved safety will encourage new segments of riders- most likely, a resurgence of older people, moms, and school age kids.
The advantages go beyond accident avoidance. Autonomous cars use the road surface more efficiently and productively. One autonomous taxi, in circulation, is predicted to take six to 10 cars off the road. And, many autonomous cars, in pontoon formation, reduce crowding and congestion. Importantly, circulating autonomous cars also create less demand for parking; that frees up the rightmost traffic lane, and reduces the dreaded “dooring”.
Today, many roads are striped for two and four lanes of vehicle traffic, but in the future, they might be restriped to accommodate more bikes and fewer cars. Grade-separated lanes are the choice of both cyclists and drivers. Separated lanes will help persuade cyclists of all stripes to participate- those wanting to commute, those choosing to recreate, and those simply getting on a bicycle for the fun of it.
Retro Modes? The Last Mile
Grade-separated lanes go the extra mile- they keep traditional bicycle riders safer, and they might also open up the roadway, so to speak, to more low-speed electric powered cycles. Electric bicycles, and their newer derivatives, have yet to find a niche, but are relatively low cost, convenient, and age-friendly. Most importantly, they could be the missing link in the first-mile, last-mile connection with futuristic public and private autonomous vehicles. The electric bicycle can link from home to “curb stop” supplanting the need for a household car(s).
The benefits of a bicycle- to be outdoors, to exercise, and to go the distance, led to the initial building of roads. These desires and benefits did not disappear in the early 1900’s. They simply got pushed away and under, as new excavations were made to pave and widen road surfaces… for cars and trucks.
Autonomous vehicles can help return the roads to an earlier vision and unleash a thoroughly advanced era of travel by bicycle.