Physical space is a valuable resource. The geography of the spaces we live in, work in, visit and move through is fundamental to our everyday lives. As new technologies emerge, they have the power to change our behaviour and the redefine the way in which we interact with places. Here we look at the opportunities that connected and autonomous vehicles, or CAVs, give us to redefine our relationship with urban space.
About The Authors
Miranda Sharp heads Ordnance Survey’s Innovation & Outreach team, which leads collaborative R&D projects to deliver place-based insights and help define OS’s future relevance. Mark Stileman, Competitions Manager, leads the team’s thought leadership function with a focus on infrastructure, connectivity and mobility themes. Sasha Catchpole, Innovation Researcher, provides insight to the Innovation & Outreach team, and Matthew Ricketts has recently joined OS as a Graduate Data Science Consultant, and delivered the spatial insight in this article.
Transport Infrastructure Defines Places
Our experience of a place tends to be defined by how we move through it, and as a consequence, places tend to be defined by their transport infrastructure. Think of London, Paris, Amsterdam or New York, and memories or perceptions of their streets and their traffic won’t be far away.
Cities are continuing to grow around the world, and they are all looking at how they can improve flow and mobility. Bigger roads? Mass transit systems? Bike hire schemes? When governments and communities consider the options for transport, they are dealing with a range of tightly knotted issues. Urban flow is bound up with concerns about safety, air quality, noise and congestion, with knock-on consequences for the health of its people, both mentally and physically, and of its society, ecology and economy.
Technology is promising to disrupt the traditional range of transport choices. Electric vehicles, shared car and bike schemes and mobility-as-a-service initiatives are all changing the status quo. But it is the advent of the connected and autonomous vehicle, or CAV, which arguably has the greatest potential to change the very nature of the geography within which we live, and has prompted the NIC and SBRI to launch its competition to change how UK roads are designed, managed and used, to maximise the benefits of CAVs.
When the motor car became mass-produced after the first world war, it didn’t just change travel choices – it changed the very nature of the geography in which we live. The growth of suburbs, satellite towns and commuter villages was a direct result of mass mobility, and the later as demand rose and mobility led to congestion, by-passes, ring roads and out-of-town retail centres followed. If you look at maps of Britain in the early twentieth century compared to now, you’ll see changes that were the consequence of the mass adoption of the motor car.
At a more local level, we have become accustomed (and possibly inured) to the flotsam of road transport dominating our public spaces. Bus stops, street lights, signs, gantries, barriers and parked cars are everywhere. This is part of modern life and we accept it. But would we choose it today, given the choice?
Vehicles that can drive themselves are seizing the popular imagination and provoke a range of emotions. But they are likely to be part of a mix of technology that can fundamentally affect the landscapes we live in, and as such they present an opportunity to think about the kind of places where we want to live, work and visit.
Spaces make cities
Tim Stonor from Space Syntax argues that that enabling connections between people is at the heart of what makes a city smart. Spatial layout exerts influence on human behaviour; it defines how we flow through the city, interact with others and transact through space socially and economically. Cities dissected by large, fast highways, such as the Los Angeles, allow vehicles to speed through a city but at the cost of very low spatial accessibility for the people who live there. By contrast, the Champs Élysées in Paris or Edinburgh’s Royal Mile represent a very different kind of thoroughfare, which integrates local and regional journeys and offers high local flow. More accessible places get more movement, more connectivity and more human connections.
With space in cities being such a precious and significant resource, CAVs represent an opportunity to re-think our relationship with urban landscapes and how we move through them.
Let’s make transport fit the city, not the other way around
When a useful technology emerges, our tendency is often to wonder how we should adapt ourselves to it. The arrival of the electric motor exemplifies this, with some speculating that the house of the future would be built around a single central motor and a fantastic system of belts propelling devices around the house. Of course, what happened was the reverse; the electric motor was adapted and miniaturised to suit the needs of people and homes.
In the same way, we should resist asking the question ‘how do we need to adapt our communities to prepare for CAVs?’ Instead we should be asking ourselves how we want communities to look and feel. Not many of us would want to live somewhere with state-of-the-art urban mobility but does not feel welcoming, healthy or safe.
We can see this already starting to take shape. Many cities are now actively encouraging people to walk or cycle and embracing new urbanism urban design principles with the aim of increasing health and wellbeing and reducing demand on a finite road infrastructure. Some local communities are also trying to re-consider the spatial layout of their roads to reduce the dominance of vehicles in city environments. For instance, Transport for London’s Mini-Hollands programme has awarded £30m to three London Boroughs to create a network of cycle routes. As a result, Walthamstow traffic levels in 12 key roads were reported to fall by 56%, or 10,000 fewer vehicles a day.
 Frederick Christine’s general utility motor, and another idea about a centralised domestic vacuum pump, are both described in “A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day” by David Heckman.
There is also an increased awareness of the value of green space in cities to improve physical and mental health and allow nature to offset the effects of urban pollution. We at OS have recently worked with the UK government to map Britain’s green spaces in great detail. This is a movement which has huge potential to improve neighbourhoods, with 87 communities currently getting support to develop urban pocket parks.
Can we make better use of our spaces?
We were interested to find out how much of the urban environment is currently used for parking and vehicle-related infrastructure, across our cities in Great Britain. We looked at three cities and specific areas of those cities of similar socio-economic makeup: Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Ordnance Survey holds the most detailed and accurate view of Great Britain’s landscape in our OS MasterMap Topography Layer – from roads to fields, to buildings and trees, fences, paths and more. We used this, supplemented with additional information from our Points of Interest product and open data feeds from these cities’ Transport authorities, to locate relevant infrastructure – multi- and single-storey car parks, roadside parking bays (where possible) and (later) roads.
As OS MasterMap Topography Layer is feature-based, each shape or polygon feature represents a real-world object. By intersecting the relevant Points of Interest and open data feeds with the features in OS MasterMap using a point-in-polygon method, we were able to cross-reference the centroids of car parking sites with their relevant associated polygons. These polygons were then used to extract the exact footprint of firstly car parks, and secondly road surfaces, across the areas of interest and queried for spatial analysis. Using these data, we were able to calculate total ground level surface cover as a percentage of total area of interest, in each city.
Adding road and parking area together, we found that approximately 30% of the Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester urban geography is consistently devoted to vehicle use. Some cities have experimented with using their streets in original and playful ways, such as the giant slide in Bristol’s Park Street. If CAVs meant that we didn’t need all that road and parking space, what might we choose to use it for?
Parking is problematic for two reasons. One is that it represents a lot of expensive capital, in the form of thousands of vehicles, sitting idle for most of the time; 95% according to some calculations. The other is more specific to town and city centres, where a proportion of traffic is simply roaming the streets in search of a parking space – a 2017 study concluded that UK drivers spend an average of 44 hours a year searching for parking. This is a situation which is highly detrimental to congestion, air quality and drivers’ tempers. That’s why Sam Li, Transport for Greater Manchester’s Innovation Officer, sees making better use of existing parking capacity as an immediate priority for the city.
New technologies offer the opportunity to manage and design urban infrastructure and spaces around people. In addition, we will have new and more powerful data assets to undertake planning, engage users and develop the physical assets in ways we can only begin to imagine.
In a future world we assume ubiquitous digital connectivity, not only for us but for the vehicles we use and the infrastructure which supports them. This is a world in which vehicles remain useful when we don’t need them, where junctions are simpler, lanes slimmer, road signage minimal and city-centre car parking is replaced with useful and attractive spaces for leisure and commerce.
We also assume that our privacy and security is assured whilst reliable information is being exchanged to ensure our safety. That is why we at OS are leading the E-CAVE project, a project to ensure that if a sinkhole opens up anywhere, no brand of car will fall down it and all the traffic infrastructure will divert vehicles away.
Come and talk to us
Our mission is to make information about ‘place’ work for the benefit of Britain, and we have an abundance of data and expertise to make our towns and cities fit for the vehicles and citizens of the future. If you have any ideas about the NIC and SBRI’s Roads for the Future competition
We’d love to talk to you.