Posted in | Automotive Robotics

Pedestrian-Oriented Streets Possible with Self-Driving Cars

There is a possibility that an urban neighborhood could be filled with self-driving cars.  How would pedestrian behavior change in relation to this? Adam Millard-Ball, assistant professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, answers that it will be good.  In fact, pedestrians would get to enjoy the streets.

Adam Millard-Ball, assistant professor of environmental studies. (Credit: University of California, Santa Cruz)

In a new study, "Pedestrians, Autonomous Vehicles, and Cities," published online on October 26 in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Millard-Ball explores the prospect of urban areas being filled with a number of “autonomous” or self-driving vehicles.  It is a phenomenon that may not be as far off as one might assume.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform travel behavior.


He uses game theory to study the interactions between pedestrians and self-driving vehicles, focusing on yielding at crosswalks.

By design autonomous vehicles are risk-averse, therefore Millard-Ball’s model proposes that pedestrians can act with impunity, and he believes self-driven vehicles may promote a shift from a vehicle-oriented urban neighborhood to a pedestrian-oriented one.

However, Millard-Ball realizes that the adoption of autonomous vehicles is likely to be hindered by their strategic drawback that slows them down in urban traffic.

“Pedestrians routinely play the game of chicken,” Millard-Ball writes. Crossing the street, even at a marked crosswalk without a traffic signal, “requires an implicit, instantaneous probability calculation: what are the odds of survival?”

The advantage of crossing the street swiftly, rather than taking a long detour or waiting for the traffic to ease up, is traded off against the likelihood of injury or even fatality. Although pedestrians innately know drivers will not intentionally run them down, there is the chance a driver may be drunk, distracted, or a sociopath.

Self-driving cars are programmed to follow the rules of the road, which includes waiting while pedestrians cross the road. The risk-averse car will be forced to stop if pedestrians step into the street or act unpredictably.  Pedestrians can rest assured in the knowledge that a car will yield.

Millard-Ball states that self-driving cars may turn out to be the most dramatic revolution in urban transportation systems, and the biggest disruption for transportation planning, since the beginning of automobiles over a century ago.  

It is likely street design, parking, and transit and paratransit service networks would be transformed.

Millard-Ball’s study connects urban planning and environmental economics, with a focus on intersections between transportation policy and climate change.

In an earlier paper, he analyzed parking strategies in urban environments that might decrease the practice - and environmental costs - of taking a detour to locate an open spot.

In his recent study, he also proposes that the potential advantages of self-driving cars -avoiding dreariness of traffic and ordeal of collisions - may be outweighed by the disadvantages of a constantly play-it-safe vehicle that slows traffic for all.

From the point of view of a passenger in an automated car, it would be like driving down a street filled with unaccompanied five-year-old children.


Millard-Ball concludes the definitive impact of autonomous vehicles relies not only on technological progress and market adoption, but also on how policy makers and planners respond.

One approach would be to maintain traffic speeds by eliminating crosswalks, increasing enforcement against jaywalkers, and raising fences between the sidewalk and roadway to corral pedestrians.

Alternatively, planners could make use of the opportunity to create additional pedestrian-oriented streets, and relegate drop-offs to the edges of urban commercial areas.

A new epoch of pedestrian supremacy could be possible with autonomous vehicles.

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