Can Autonomous Vehicles Absolve the Sins of 20th Century Planning?

Self-driving cars are likely to become part of the urban landscape in the future, and they have the potential to drastically alter urban environments—in good and bad ways.

2 minute read

August 8, 2019, 1:00 PM PDT

By Camille Fink

Automated Vehicles

posteriori / Shutterstock

"Unless cities pay close attention to how self-driving cars will shape their futures, experts say, they could easily repeat, and exacerbate, mistakes of the past," writes Katherine Shaver. 

Widespread use of autonomous vehicles will not happen, realistically, for at least a couple decades, say experts. But planners, designers, and architects are thinking ahead to how the new technology could change land use and travel patterns, says Shaver.

"For example, because driverless vehicles will drop off passengers and move on, prime real estate now consumed by vast parking lots and unsightly garages could be freed up for more housing, parks, public plazas and open space, planners say," writes Shaver. In addition, streets would open up, making room for bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

Still, many questions remain about the long-term impacts of self-driving vehicles, with some predictions suggesting that they will not solve the parking, housing, and transportation problems of cities. If these vehicles make car travel easier, people might travel more, eschew transit, and decide to live farther out, with the result being increased sprawl.

"Even so, some planners are considering ways that governments could discourage such behavior, for example, via a per-mile tax to make driverless vehicle passengers feel and bear the costs of longer trips. Such a tax, supporters say, also might discourage empty vehicles from adding to traffic congestion by roaming streets in search of passengers," notes Shaver.

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