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Driverless cars are the future of urban transport, not trams or monorails. That, at least, is the official view coming from the British city of Milton Keynes. A town of just over 250,000 residents founded in 1967, Milton Keynes is currently the host city for a set of driverless car trials funded indirectly by the U.K. government — the most ambitious testing yet staged in the world.
If all goes as planned, by 2021, Milton Keynes’ downtown will be served by an on-demand, publicly run system of 30 to 40 driverless two-seater pod cars, which will allow residents to travel between any two points in the city’s downtown without navigating or reacting to obstacles themselves. Beyond the city center, the trials will also test the viability of semi-autonomous connected cars for private use, a fast-developing technology that at present still requires a driver to be present in case of emergencies. These trials, announced in early 2015, are striking in their own right but also came simultaneously with another significant announcement. In March, Milton Keynes Council rejected the idea of building a tram or monorail line, citing high costs, disruption and potential inefficiency. For now at least, Milton Keynes believes that when it comes to exploring the future of greener, safer transport, vehicles for individuals are a better bet than pumping money into mass transit.
North American cities would do well to watch these trials closely. England’s exurban Southeast might seem far from Middle America, but in layout and conception Milton Keynes is arguably the most American of Europe’s cities. Less than 50 years old, it’s a spread-out, strictly zoned, car-dominated settlement that has at times been (rather fancifully) damned as an “Anglo Saxon Los Angeles.” Made up mainly of single-family homes built across a loose grid system, connected by modest, tree-lined highways and centered upon a large shopping mall, Milton Keynes cleaves unusually closely for a British city to late-20th century North American suburban planning ideals. And when it comes to creating greener, cleaner transit, Milton Keynes’ infrastructure and layout — its very character — make it a potentially more relevant example for American transit planners (at least outside North America’s densest metropolises) than anywhere else on the European continent. […]