Assessing the spatial implications of Autonomous Vehicles as feeders to railway stations in suburban Melbourne

  • Project dates: 2017–2018

An increasing body of research has considered the future role of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) in the urban transport mix. Most of this addresses the technical challenges of safe and reliable autonomy, including the potential for lower rates of road accident trauma. Other work looks at the economic models for AV deployment. These range from a ‘business as usual’ private ownership model, to a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) corporate ownership of the vehicle fleet with individuals renting a ride much as people use Uber or Uber Pool today.

A growing field of research considers the governance issues associated with AVs in the urban transport mix, raising significant questions of equity and ethics.

In the context of these complex and rapidly evolving issues, the Networks and Space design-research studio considers some practical questions. How might the differing AV deployment models physically fit into the suburban landscape? Specifically, how might AVs perform as a feeder mode to railway stations in suburban Melbourne? What design solutions are needed for AVs to work well in such urban public space? What regulations or policies would most effectively support positive societal outcomes in Melbourne? Which forms of AV technology best support environmental, social and public health objectives?

The studio began with intensive learning about the state-of-the-art in AV technology and theory, with expert presentations from government and the private sector. An initial fieldwork exercise took us to Melbourne Airport, where students measured the spatial and temporal efficiency of pick-up and drop-off by private car, ride-share, taxi and bus. The differing space to throughput ratios offered by these modes could then be extrapolated to the more spatially constrained, multi-use public spaces around suburban rail stations.

Based on the observations at Melbourne Airport, we concluded that most stations with substantial park-and-ride areas had sufficient space to manage high mode-shares of low-occupancy AVs, although there would need to be significant reconfiguration of the space. Furthermore, re-distribution of patterns of rail station access could lead to dramatic changes around stations that are predominantly walk-up to cater to new demand for AV pick-up and drop-off. However, two issues became clear. First, while pick-up and drop-off space may be available, the studio results challenged any assumption that AVs will allow existing car parking to be re-allocated for more attractive uses. The peak demand for station access is such that existing car parking space would simply be re-purposed as pick up/drop off zones. Second, a consistent theme across the studio work was that feeder roads serving suburban stations have insufficient capacity to handle the station access task in anything other than a high occupancy shared AV future. Scenarios involving high mode-shares of private or low occupancy AVs are incompatible with the capacity of road networks adjacent to most stations we examined, regardless of the potential for re-use of park-and-ride land at the station itself.

The students’ individual research projects explored some of the complex implications for transport and land-use planning for the AV future. These included:

  • The potential re-distribution of station access demand along rail corridors due to an uncoupling of station demand from factors like the quality of fixed-route bus services or the availability of high capacity park-and-ride lots;
  • The urgent need to re-think the value of on-street kerb space in more congested suburban nodes. AV demand for kerbside drop-off/pick-up space adjacent to key nodes will require new approaches to parking management. This is a new policy dilemma for local government;
  • The need for a more a pro-active approach to governance and regulation to ensure that the AV future delivers net community benefits.
  • A critique of the proposition that an AV-driven future will create the conditions necessary for more walkable precincts at stations and transit-accessible activity centres and strips: these sorts of urban design and placemaking outcomes have been achieved in many places (such as the UK, Europe and South East Asia) driven by imperatives to improve access to public transport, and increase amenity and safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

Key People

Lead researchers

Networks and Space: Autonomous Vehicles in Suburban Melbourne Design-Research Studio

Dr John Stone

University of Melbourne

Networks and Space: Autonomous Vehicles in Suburban Melbourne Design-Research Studio

Iain Lawrie

University of Melbourne

Networks and Space: Autonomous Vehicles in Suburban Melbourne Design-Research Studio

Leyla Beiglari

Hassell Architecture

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Research Programs

Research Programs

Planning & Transport in City Regions

The Planning and Transport in City Regions Program seeks to understand processes of urban development and patterns of mobility at the metro-regional scale.