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How planning for autonomous vehicles can help cities improve 3 types of infrastructure

October 03, 2017

Shared Automated Vehicles can support urbanization, inclusion, and improve transportation options

The pending automated vehicle revolution is still in its infancy, which means it is the perfect time for planners, engineers, city officials, and citizens to ask: “What kind of city do we want?” With countless scenarios being opined—from exacerbated urban sprawl to intensified downtown living—it’s not too early to map out our vision for an efficient and livable future. 

Some of the most powerful voices in this discussion are the cities themselves. City officials have a duty to serve their citizens through creating comfortable, exciting, inclusive, and economically viable communities. Some of the things they can look forward to, with the help of shared automated vehicles (SAVs), are being able to support the trend towards urbanization, offer inclusive transportation to more citizens, and augment existing transportation networks. 

There are many opportunities to improve urban space while planning for SAV adoption. Ultimately, these vehicles will grant cities the chance to make adjustments in zoning, offer incentives (or disincentives), and optimize space. Three of the most important areas for cities to focus on are biking/walking infrastructure, parking lots/garages, and infill development/urban renewal. 

  1. Biking/walking infrastructure 
    With a decreased demand for multi-lane thoroughfares and on-street parking, cities can give pedestrians and cyclists some much deserved attention. Creating inviting public spaces and walkable corridors is associated with healthy lifestyles and vibrant communities. The National Complete Streets Coalition cites a myriad of benefits from instituting complete streets with topics ranging from climate change to equity issues. It seems with the adoption of SAVs, cities are well-positioned to start further mobility infrastructure planning initiatives. 
  2. Parking lots/garages 
    If most citizens can zip around via SAV fleets, city centers can finally stop spending time and money on building and maintaining their surplus of parking lots and garages. The estimates have been well-published—anywhere from three to eight parking spaces per car in the United States. It’s amazing that with all of those parking spaces, drivers still spend 17 hours per year searching for a spot. As we enter this transitional phase to SAV adoption, cities can determine how best to wean themselves from this inefficient land-use practice while deciding the best way to get people in, out, and around the city. 
  3. Infill development/urban renewal 
    Many urban centers already face opportunities for infill development and urban renewal projects, but with a decreased demand for parking and an increased demand for multimodal development and amenities, infill opportunities will skyrocket. Cities should start to incentivize this type of development early.

Cities all over the world are investing in transit-oriented development (TOD). In Phoenix, Arizona, the city has identified five such neighborhoods adjacent to the Metro light rail corridor. These older neighborhoods have a rich history that support a diverse network of businesses, amenities, and citizens. Unfortunately, suburban sprawl has left certain pockets blighted, causing still useful infrastructure undervalued and underused. Returning focus to these prior investments will be positive for economic development and the communities that have taken root.

The Smart Prosperity Institute created an interesting site that discusses the true costs of sprawl.

One of the best ways to start a discussion around SAV technology is through pilot programs. Over the course of the next 12 months, numerous pilot programs will launch around the world. Some vehicle manufacturers intend on scaling production during this time. Serious thought needs to be given to how these vehicles will best serve the public interest before their roll-out dictates how our cities develop. A business-as-usual strategy to regulating land-use and managing roadways will no longer be acceptable.

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