Autonomous Vehicles will change land use planning. What you should be thinking about now
The technology changes Connected and Autonomous Vehicles will bring to land planning are numerous—and exciting!
By Craig Lewis, Charlotte, NC
Many of the world’s largest tech firms, the auto industry, US DOTs, and cities across the globe are embracing connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). From Pittsburgh, PA to the nation-state of Singapore, different technologies are being integrated among various platforms to support CAVs. Across the related industries, hundreds of billions of dollars is being invested in research and development, front-line vehicle production, and the associated infrastructure. This investment of both technology and money brings the promise of a cleaner, safer, and more efficient way to travel.
But, along with this promise of more efficient travel comes several secondary impacts—positive and negative—that we should also consider. As a planner and urban designer on the front lines of this revolution, I’ve identified eleven areas that should be top of mind when exploring this new approach to how we travel. These impacts are not just predicated on fully autonomous or "Level 5" vehicles (no steering wheels).
Responding to a changing auto industry
Although autonomous vehicles may be generations away from full adaptation, America’s car industry is changing. We’ve seen a shift towards hybrid and plug-in electric technologies throughout the past decade. This is not only affecting the auto industry, but the shift towards ride-sharing and modern ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are also having impacts.
Cities, or more particularly, their urban cores and in-town neighborhoods, are witnessing an inversion of investment. As people and jobs return to downtowns, the demands to replace surface parking lots with mid and high-density, mixed-use development increases. Suburbanization hailed by the previous century brought major damage—laying waste to entire neighborhoods and fine-grain commercial districts in favor of single-purpose towers surrounded by convenient parking.
In fact, providing convenient parking is so rampant that the central core of cities like Houston, TX, Little Rock, AR, and Washington, DC have devoted more than half their land area to highways, streets, and parking areas. Some communities and developers are attempting their own revolution to unbundle parking from developments but the overwhelming inertia of rear-view mirror wisdom ingrained in the conventional development financing (i.e., the banks) and leasing (i.e., office property managers) industry is a difficult ship to turn.
How to plan for the future today
With all this change, what’s a solid take-away? Full adaptation of autonomous vehicles will happen over a generation or more as mixed modes of technology operate in parallel. During the transition, the benefits of fully autonomous vehicles will not be fully realized. Still, the infrastructure to support CAVs will be needed sooner, while investments in other soon-to-be-obsolete infrastructure such as parking structures may become un-financeable.
For now, there are eleven shifts in land use that will likely occur as we transition to our autonomous future. It’s great to identify the eleven shifts, but how will this impact how we plan today?
We are approaching an era where parking infrastructure (i.e., deck and surface lots) may not outlive the life of its mortgage. Who is going to finance a parking deck when CAVs and shared mobility solutions make parking a car for an extended period a futile exercise?
The technology I am most excited about is the shift to alternative fuels that all the major auto makers have started to embrace. Big oil may keep flowing – for now - but it’s evident that no one wants to hedge their future on its cost and availability. Tesla’s commitment to building a charging infrastructure is paving the way for other automakers to advance their timelines for accepting electric and fuel cell technology. This means our cities will become more livable and sustainable. Rome will no longer scrape the soot from the walls of their treasured churches and Beijing and Mexico City will no longer be a place where wearing a breathing mask is a way of life. The benefits of density and compact living can flow throughout cities without the disabling effects of poor air quality and vehicle noise.
As each day passes, the more our awareness grows of the benefits CAVs offer to our communities. Our urban environment stands to benefit from this mobility revolution and it will be exciting to see how quickly our cities can respond to these opportunities.
Also from Craig: The parking problem: Does form really follow function?
(With CAVs) We can really start to beautify our environment. Highways will no longer divide communities but instead be grand boulevards that are more appropriate for civic life.