Autonomous Vehicles Will Change City Landscapes

by: Justin Thompson and Garth Bostic

 



There has been a lot of press recently about the utopian promise of autonomous vehicles. And why not? The concept of having our cars drive us while we sit in luxury has an almost universal appeal. That appeal pulls at the imagination and invites daydreaming about a world in which our cars efficiently move about and talk to one another, eliminating traffic and whisking us from point A to point B while also causing emissions to plummet and cities to thrive. The reality though, is that autonomous vehicles could present a starkly different world than the one so many stories have portrayed. Unshackled from drivers, trip counts could explode, which could lead to more vehicles on the road.

The truth is that the impact of autonomous vehicles on our world has less to do with technology and more to do with how proactive society and government are in integrating that technology. We can either adjust our habits and laws in a manner that allows autonomous vehicles to merge into and contribute or we can do nothing and effectively make them force their way into the flow. Which route we go will largely determine whether our future with autonomous vehicles resembles the utopian model or not.

Changing Our Habits

Autonomous vehicles on their own won't change traffic congestion, particularly if they are primarily used to take a single passenger from one place to another. In fact, traffic has the potential to increase, as even those without drivers' licenses and those who aren't old enough to drive can be picked up and dropped off at a whim by themselves. Moreover, one can imagine a world where cars opt to circle a destination rather than park, perhaps waiting to be called by a passenger. In those cases, among other similar situations, cars without even a single passenger will clog roads.

In order for autonomous vehicles to positively change traffic congestion, adoption needs to be accompanied by an increase in the amount of ridesharing. The good news is that there are numerous studies that suggest that ridesharing is on the rise. It is no revelation that transportation has already gone through a fundamental shift with ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. These services have decreased the cost of hailing a ride while increasing efficiency in the process. They have also (and perhaps more importantly) fostered the ridesharing mentality through their myriad offered payment options. Autonomous vehicles have the power to drop the price of this type of ridesharing even more, as the cost of the driver's labor is no longer a factor.

The technology underlying autonomous vehicles could also be utilized for exciting new methods of transporting a number of individuals at once, taking cars off the roads, lowering emissions and making safer environments. Commuting to work in a local carpool may become easier and more comfortable when no one needs to drive. Public transportation could be enhanced, rather than deterred, as autonomous shuttles quickly and easily pick up and drop off individuals based around mass transit hubs. As the price of a ride drops, some ingenuity and the proper incentives will be needed to ensure our traffic problems aren't exacerbated to new levels. Regardless, unless society continues to adopt ridesharing, much of the promise of autonomous vehicles will be unfulfilled.

Changing Our Laws

Beyond the re-evaluation of traffic codes and auto insurance regulation, governments, particularly local governments, have a crucial part to play in getting ready for cities filled with autonomous vehicles. Local land use laws must set a precedent to ensure autonomous vehicles enhance, rather than hinder, the livability of built environments.

Autonomous vehicles won't just change the way we get around; they have the potential to redefine the landscapes of our cities in dramatic ways. Extended commute times will be far more bearable when drivers aren't in control of their vehicles. Drivers (or more appropriately, passengers) can work on the road, feel free to be distracted and enjoy the ride as their car takes them to work. As a result, individuals may be incentivized to move farther from city centers, adding to urban sprawl and replacing open space or agricultural communities with exurbs.

Of course, this type of growth is the antithesis of what many cities have been working toward in the last 20 years. Downtown centers have seen a renewal, and a greater concern for the environmental impact of vehicle emissions has led many city planners to push for increased urban density and infill development, rather than expansion of low-rise communities on the outer rings of metropolitan areas.

In order to keep current goals on track, local governments need to be proactive in their planning, rather than reactive. As we look toward a new future of transportation, there needs to be a greater focus on how autonomous vehicles can not only be integrated into the real estate industry but how they can be utilized to accomplish community planning goals.

The easiest example is parking. Autonomous vehicles can park themselves. Subscription models of car ownership don't require parking, as individuals are dropped off at their destinations. This would render current parking minimums requirements in place by many cities outdated and excessive and, in some instances perhaps, entirely obsolete. As autonomous vehicles become the norm, parking could be de-coupled from buildings, meaning that offsite structures in more appropriate locales could be purchased to satisfy parking requirements. This would, in turn, free up square footage in buildings that could be used for higher and more productive uses such as additional dwellings.

The advent of autonomous technology is on the verge of shifting power back to local governments. Depending on how local governments respond, our office parks, apartment complexes and urban areas could look drastically different, or they could stay behind the times. They could respond in a way that results in vibrant urban centers, where residents and workers alike are encouraged to participate in rideshares, or perhaps park on the edges of the city center and rely on secondary transportation after being dropped off. Or they could simply maintain the status quo and cope with what could likely be a bevy of empty parking garages and surface parking lots that raise the cost of development while lowering the value of adjacent properties. In short, they could use this coming opportunity to facilitate economic development or they could ignore it and perhaps usher in an unwelcome environment that works against the promise and allure we have all read about.

The technological advancement is coming; the impact it has will depend largely on if and how our habits and laws adjust.



article from: Forbes