Imagine we live in an Edmonton of the future, where automated, electric vehicles whoosh us from place to place.
You agree to meet a friend for coffee, and both of you are dropped off at the door of the cafe by your electric vehicles. Neither of you want to spring for parking — and why would you? Running the cars is cheap and environmentally friendly. And, they drive themselves. So, you both program the cars to circle the neighbourhood till you call for them to return and pick you up.
Now, imagine hundreds, even thousands of people all doing this at the same time. Futurists call these “zombie cars” — automated vehicles that will roam and roam till they are needed.
This is what Julian Faid, a researcher at the University of Alberta, sees as just one example of Jevons Paradox; that is, when technology improves the efficiency of a thing, we will use more of that thing — negating the efficiency we were supposed to realize. For example: LED lights use far less electricity and have longer lives than traditional bulbs. But they also lead us to leave the lights on more often, and put up bigger Christmas displays.
Now, we’re just barely seeing the impact of the electric vehicle in Edmonton, and automated cars are still in a nascent phase. But, combined, they could provide a major Jevons Paradox for cities, stripping people away from transit, making cities less walkable. And that’s something Faid tackled with co-authors Harvey Krahn (University of Alberta) and Naomi Krogman (Simon Fraser University) in a paper on what our future could look like thanks to the rise of autonomous vehicles, published in the Canadian Journal of Urban Research. He’s also the project lead on a report on urban mobility that was presented to Transport Canada in February.
Faid and his co-authors spoke to city planners from major cities across Canada, including Edmonton. Faid says what he learned is that cities need to be flexible and prioritize “space efficient” transportation options over ones that we somewhat lazily call “sustainable.” The car-making companies of the future may advertise their products as “sustainable” because they don’t use gasoline. But if they carry one person at a time, they take up space, create congestion and snatch people away from other modes of transportation. “Sustainable” is a word that’s been co-opted by marketing firms, and we need to be wary of it.
“Driving, whether it’s by robot, by electric car, whether it’s gas powered, is inefficient,” says Faid. “For space, for CO2 emissions, brake dust or potentially killing people on the roads, injuring people, all of those things are actually not sustainable.”
That’s why he thinks any planning that prioritizes the car — even an automated one — is not a good idea.
“Ultimately, we’re planning for cars — but, Edmonton is already pretty good at that. Edmonton is a city that is built for cars,” he says.
What the future requires is open-ended planning that encourages many modes of transportation, from pedestrians to bikes to whatever new technology will carry us around.
“The way to plan for autonomous vehicles is to plan for flexible and adaptable cities,” says Faid. “Ones that can pivot and change with new technologies, new societal shifts, those are the things we need to do. COVID is a good example. We suddenly needed to be six feet apart on the sidewalk. We suddenly had to have this conversation that was ‘certainly, we can’t take away a lane from drivers!’ But we shouldn’t have a city that is so car dominant that something like that is even a concern.”
But, in planning for a flexible city, Faid says that planners can only do so much. City governments must also be bold. And he’s not afraid to be critical of the city’s plan to revitalize a parking lot adjacent to the Orange Hub on 156th Street.
“The City is spending $14 million on a parkade next to a (planned) train station, and that’s just a crazy decision, based on the city plan that they themselves signed off on.” he says. “That’s an interesting example of car culture and how it permeates through politics in Edmonton, in Alberta and through North America. The question is how to build that adaptable city that doesn’t root you into this rut of the car, and not allow you to deviate when new technologies or societal shifts happen?”