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Technology in Traffic: 3 Guiding Principles

It’s no secret that technology is increasingly seeping its way into how we organize traffic and by extension our cities. Discussions about connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), intelligent traffic systems (ITS) and forms of e-mobility have begun to all but dominate the discourse around the future of mobility. Over the years, new technologies have helped to advance the way we plan and operate traffic networks, but there is a clear risk that unchecked it may take us on a path that is counter to broader goals of city building and place making. Justin Goulding, Integrated Mobility Consultant in our Ottawa office, explores how we must approach new technology with trepidation, and keep an eye to maintaining our path to better – more human – transportation.

At a fundamental level, we need to ask ourselves: What goal are we trying to achieve with the introduction of new technologies, and; what role should they play in improving our communities. Can we afford implementing technologies that focus on increasing right-of-way capacity without taking into account the impacts to the surrounding environment?

As we move forward exploring and taking advantage of technological innovations, we should be sure to ground our decisions and actions in (at least) the following three principles:

Put Places First

Though certainly not exclusive to discussions around technology, it bears repeating that as we change the ways people move through cities, our goal should always be to improve the quality of space to make them better for people. It is imperative to remember this as we strive to improve mobility because it helps to frame the outcomes we should seek through technological innovations. We have a strong understanding of the negative impacts our existing traffic paradigm have on our health, the environment, and public space, therefore mitigating these unintended outcomes should be a guiding force for how technology is introduced to traffic. It is clear that any discussion about transportation will involve an element of capacity and time, but this should not be our main focus nor our greatest concern. Arguably our biggest challenges are how to reduce the negative impacts of traffic on people when they go out to enjoy the places where they live.

Design for Everyone

Cities are increasingly realizing the critical role that equity plays in how we move through our cities. An expanding body of research is helping us recognize not only the disparities that exist in our transportation systems but also how these disparities are – at times – being reinforced systemically. As we move forward increasing the role that technology plays in mobility, there lies a significant risk that some people are left behind, likely becoming further marginalized.

A key example of this risk presents itself in discussions about AVs and the how to design the built environment to conform to their constraints rather than the other way around. Suggestions of placing RFID devices or similar in bikes to improve detection by AVs creates the potential for significant equity issues. An individual’s inherent safety while cycling (or walking) should not be dictated by requiring them to carry a piece of technology. Rather it should be a basic tenet to how we organization of our public spaces. Everyone that occupies public space should have the same opportunity and right to safety. Technology can present fantastic opportunities to increase the visibility of vulnerable road users, but the responsibility to engage this technology should not fall on those users.

Certainty Breeds Confidence

It has been observed time and time again in our traffic systems that certainty breeds confidence. Perhaps this doesn’t sound problematic but if you reframe that thinking to certainty breeding entitlement the issues start becoming clearer. There are many ways that we introduce certainty into the traffic environment, often for the better, but we must always be cognizant of potential unintended consequences this may bring.

The advent of sensory technologies has created the opportunity to augment the human experience through additional warning systems, like blind spot alarms in vehicles. Similar technologies have also been trialed in cities to improve safety conditions for cyclists by alerting drivers when they are approaching an intersection. While this may sound like a positive step forward – and we may still find it is – there is a significant risk that these types of approaches may increase the likelihood that users become reliant on that technology, resulting in a decrease in more active scanning behaviours. If technology was perfect, this may not be a problem. A more likely scenario, however, is one where we implement an imperfect technology that has its shortcomings (false negatives, lack of conspicuity, etc.). And in this can, it is unfortunately the users that will pay, potentially with their safety. The best way to overcome this challenge will be to ensure that technologies introduced to the market limit the opportunity to create a level of blind confidence in their function. We should strive to apply technology in ways that reinforces positive behaviour and encourages safety, even in their absence.

Justin Goulding

‘Transportation systems should be designed to help create the places we want, rather than forcing places to respond to the transportation system we have.’

Integrated Mobility Consultant