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Autonomous Vehicles will change land use planning. What you should be thinking about now

January 25, 2017

By Craig Lewis

The technology changes Connected and Autonomous Vehicles will bring to land planning are numerous—and exciting

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.

Concept drawings how parking structures can be turned into greenspace.

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?

  • Goodbye surface lots. The plethora of surface lots, particularly in cities, will start to disappear. With cars driving themselves and parking on their own in places far less convenience than present drivers would tolerate, the need for a parking space within 100 feet of the front door will be obsolete. Why park close when you are dropped off at the curb? This extra space could certainly be converted to green space or reclaimed as potential future development sites.
  • Adapt existing parking structures, if possible. What do we do with all those parking structures that become obsolete? Many have theorized garages could become affordable housing, storage, or even affordable commercial spaces. The limited floor to floor ceiling heights will reduce potential reuse, and any structures that have extensive ramping will be less than ideal. Still, the adaptive reuse of some parking structures, particularly those more recently constructed, will be a solution for some.
  • Demolish the rest. Of course, many of these structures are at the edge of their demise already. Like surface lots, the ultimate answer will be to demolish and replace them with public space or new infill. The big question here is—what we do with all that construction debris?
  • Reclaim right-of-way for people. We can’t speak about the impacts on land use without also speaking about the great benefits that a more disciplined traffic pattern will do for streets currently designed to allow for human error and distractions. We can narrow lanes or eliminate some, and add more street trees and bike lanes.
  • Fueling station leave the corners. Gas stations currently dominate many intersections. With the worlds' fleet transitioning to fuel cell and electric, the need for convenient fueling goes away. Is your car running low on charge? You can program it to find the nearest charging station in a parking space. There may still be a need for rapid charging stations but do they need to be at all major intersections? And, will they be part of the public infrastructure or delivered by many private companies as they are today?
  • On-street parking becomes dual purpose. Parking will likely still be needed, particularly in places where car ownership continues—such as the suburbs. But unlike the single purpose asphalt resting places of today’s parking lots and on-street spaces, future parking areas will double as recharging centers. Charging stations and induction pads in on-street spaces will be a critical part of the utility infrastructure of the future. The land use implication here is that on-street parking will continue to provide separation between moving cars and bicyclists and pedestrians—further activating commercial centers and business districts—but will also be a critical part of the charging network—much like catenary wires are to streetcars and light-rail vehicles.
  • Uber, pick me up here. On-demand transportation will need safe and convenient drop-off zones. These are probably not much different than bus stops along most corridors. While many Uber and Lyft rides in urban areas begin and end by pulling over close to the sidewalk, autonomous vehicles will most likely prefer to be in less complex environments.
  • Bring back the street trees. One huge benefit of CAVs is safety. They won’t jump over curbs and strike pedestrians, trees, or infrastructure. Planners can now accommodate more trees, and by doing so, provide an additional benefit—improved heath. Air quality in our cities will improve once fossil fuels are no longer part of the exhaust system, enhancing the environment and people’s health.
  • More sprawl, or less? Of great debate exists surrounding if suburban sprawl will increase or decrease as a result of CAVs. Regardless of who’s driving, being in a car for 30 to 60 minutes, two times a day for a commute is not a pleasurable experience. And as much as technology companies will suggest that you can be productive in a car, I question whether that is true for the majority of the population. Of the six people in my household, only one can read in the car and not get car sick. A long commute is better if someone else is driving but it’s no substitute for living nearby. I believe that the suburbs will grow if we continue to subsidize them with free highway infrastructure and do not provide affordable and attractive alternatives, particularly to families.
  • Repurpose that garage. Will single or multi-family homes still need garages in the age of CAVs? Given that many garages are used as attached storage buildings and don’t house cars, they will continue. But, perhaps we don’t need as many and given the cost of housing, it might become evident that it costs money to store all that stuff!
  • Highways become boulevards. Finally, one of the most important achievements that will come from CAV technology is that, unlike traditional cars, they’re clean and quiet. Once our cars switch to electric and fuel cells it will no longer be noxious to live next to a highway. We can repurpose the excess right-of-way, preserved buffers, and sound walls for urban redevelopment. What does this mean for planners? 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.

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?

A roadway before CAV.

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.

A roadway after CAV.

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.

  • Craig Lewis

    Craig has more than 30 years of award-winning experience implementing walkable, vibrant urbanism in hundreds of communities throughout North America.

    Contact Craig
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