It’s finally indisputable: A future of self-driving cars is near. Auto and tech firms are in overdrive, working to capture the biggest share of the emerging market. In response, government officials at all levels have been moving to ease vehicle requirements and relax safety standards to spur the evolution of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. While the policies to accelerate AV design will certainly lead to societal benefits, including saved lives, there is a flaw in this exclusive vehicular focus — it is a dialogue that leaves out the potential to rethink our cities from the ground up.
Our cities are complex organisms that support far more than automobiles — we also need safe infrastructure for pedestrians, bicycles and buses. With the advent of self-driving cars, the ways in which city planners could reshape our urban spaces are innumerable. For example, we will soon have much more flexibility in reconsidering street width, traffic direction and allocation of road space. Cities could prioritize creating more space for bicycles and pedestrians in an autonomous future. Or perhaps they will decide to do away with two-way traffic in an algorithmically-driven traffic system.
Maybe city leaders will opt to reframe systems around logistics and deliveries in the future, zoning delivery by time, type and location.
Reliance on AV technology could also usher in opportunities to think about urban land use and growth. For example, the development of parking lots and auto-servicing real estate could become a thing of the past, creating room for more people-friendly uses of our public space. Imagine it: that could mean prioritizing housing on these parcels to help address the housing crunch in many of our cities. It could mean creating small parks instead of driveways and spare rooms instead of garages.
Of course, many secondary effects in urban areas will result from new and emerging transportation, and there is a need for a policy and planning dialogue that is not just about the vehicles themselves. Public officials, urban planners and citizens need to push for standards that ensure transportation accessibility in the new mobility future. We are already seeing increases in driving because of transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, and the cost of time in a vehicle likely is going to go down even more — which means more cars on the road. What does this mean for the safety, cleanliness and livability of our cities? If our society is focused on developing pleasant, sustainable and equitable downtowns, how can we maintain that focus as trips increase?
While some claim to have answers, I believe we are facing more questions than answers. Rather than speculate, policymakers, planners and citizens should be talking about how we ought to rethink city spaces just as much as we are encouraging automakers and technology firms to innovate around the vehicles. Richard Florida recently suggested that we may be near the end of the urban century. He predicts a revival of suburbanism and suggests that millennial preferences toward urbanism are overstated.
This is a pessimistic view on the future, and yet, within this pessimism I believe there is hope. If we are really at the apex of the urban century — a century that has brought us a more just and prosperous city — then as a society, we need to consider what kind of future city we want. We need to expand conversations that are about more than vehicles. We need to work with automakers to reshape streets that are consistent with social, economic and environmental goals. We need to think beyond the vehicle and plan the kind of cities that we want to see — and be.
William Riggs, Ph.D., is a professor in the University of San Francisco’s School of Management and a leading industry expert in the areas of transportation, economics and emerging technology.