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Smarter Cities for the Cars of the Future

Autonomous Vehicles Require a New City Model

Over the course of the last several weeks we’ve talked about the many effects and even needs of autonomous vehicles as we work towards a future filled with them. We’ve debated whether people will buy fewer or exponentially more cars with the introduction of safer and cheaper alternatives to what we drive now. The need for more IoT devices and networked sensors has been noted to gather and coordinate the data needed to train not just the cars but also the underlying platform(s). We’ve talked about the likely increase of traffic, but also effect on making our streets and highways safer for bikes and scooters. All while firmly suggesting the car revolution will take several decades to fully materialize, rather than the 5–10 years many are excited about today.

With all the previous topics in mind along with the knowledge that autonomous cars will have a massive effect on the human condition, on society, and on the future of cities, we wanted to draw out a few areas in which municipalities and broader counties will have to rethink their future planning. Packed urban centers will have to transform if they want to survive the ensuing apocalypse of Autonomous Vehicles. There are three functions and physicalities that will be broadly impacted and we think will look much different in future decades: city planning, parking lots, and roads or traffic lanes. We’ve outlined our thoughts on each but are curious to hear the thoughts of city planners and elected officials about how they are considering and addressing these coming challenges to make AVs a blessing, not a curse.

City Planning

There will be many second order effects of autonomous cars. One of them will be the impact on real estate and city planning. We believe the increase in people’s comfort with longer commutes and distances will make the recently eschewed suburbs more desirable or even hip again. Today’s crowded cities full of skyscrapers may thin out, and tabled urban sprawl plans will again seem more livable for residents and bring developers steady or even growing profits. School zones may be funded and accepted neighborhoods may be remapped once we feel comfortable sending our children farther away for school and playdates in our own, safe autonomous car. How much property will be zoned in new neighborhoods for residential vs. retail or commercial space when driving proximity to grocery stores and post offices is no longer required with the new vending machines on wheels provided by Amazon?

Many various truck stop towns — along with their rest stops along the way — may disappear with the introduction of Autonomous Long Haul delivery trucks. Or perhaps these will become connected to the new cities that crop up in now affordable outer limit county lines. In these outreach reaches of marked counties, will there be areas designated for stop over parking or stays in self-driving cars that replace commuter or shuttle flights between cities? If autonomous technology is applied to RVs and cars pulling Airstream trailers, might communities of these roving people and their homes replace Florida as the ultimate retirement destination — and need their own designated grounds or allotments?

The Champs Elysees in Pars. Image courtesy of takepart.com

Parking Lot Mapping

A lot of this stop and go potential leads to conversation about parking lots. One prediction repeatedly made is that with autonomous vehicles, parking lots will become obsolete and cities will gain back the roughly 30% of their footprint currently used for parking. This thought assumes a reduction of vehicles owned — as we’re all expected to move to ridesharing — and it also assumes autonomous vehicles will continuously roam city streets or even leave any given city until they are hailed back for typical or now more convenient drive times.

This prediction is problematic because, as we saw discussed in the past piece about car buying, it is not at all a trivial assumption that we will stop buying, owning, and parking cars. It is also challenging because traffic will only increase if cars are parked — in stationary or mobile mode — on the road and sending vehicles out of town will also strain infrastructure with immeasurable traffic demands.

There will likely need to be a multipronged approach to address parking in cityscapes. One will likely be stratified rush hours for people still needing to travel into and work from city centers. Another could be the expansion of city transit plans to include ridesharing options — especially with city that lack more accessible networks or neighborhood coverage. And with AVs not be limited by our driving skills, the emergence of highly packed, automated parking lots could squeeze in a lot more vehicles than we can today, likely by measures of 2–4x. We’re already seeing many stacked parking lots making their way into cities like New York and into apartments in San Francisco.

Reimagining Roads

Beyond the physicalities of our cities expanding and our parking lots changes, the paths of transport in our cities will need to change dramatically. We have two suggestions we think will be helpful to rewiring cities and how our roads and freeways are used daily.

First, cities need to expose the externalities of using the road and start charging money for the use of roads, dynamically. These charges could be based on the path and the congestion on various paths. A high enough, dynamic surcharge would naturally lead to different behaviors around rush hours, employment times, travel considerations and vacation planning. This shift would effectively win the congestion battle before it begins. To avoid political issues and constituent uprisings, cities need to start surge pricing Uber, Lyft and others for the use of public roads. This would simply mimic how Uber surge prices passengers today. All our decision making as city dwellers would shift quickly and naturally with road usage as we’d consider whether we prefer riding a longer route, getting out of the house an hour earlier or paying an extra $10. These dynamics will naturally distribute traffic and alleviate congestion spikes.

Next, cities need to (re)plan their roads to dramatically increase maximum lane occupancy. Today, when planning roads, we assume a maximum flow rate of 2,200 cars per lane per hour. We need to increase that number 3 or 4-fold to as much as 8,000 cars per lane per hour. To allow for that, we need to stop thinking the only thing that will be changed on the road is that we will replace ordinary cars with AVs. In fact, the entire road network needs to change. We need to stop thinking of AVs as individual cars each deciding on its own what it is doing. We need to move from traffic lights to traffic flows — lanes filled with autonomous vehicles, constantly coordinated and driving in tandem. These flows need to be adaptable and wired for commuters, ridesharing, delivery stops, and even the occasional arterial routing. Traffic lights and stop signs may go the way of telephone lines over the coming decades as networks and city flows take over visual markers of pathways, starts and stops.

So where does this all leave us? We need to equip cities with the abilities, networks and software to help adapt to this brave new AV-filled world that is on the horizon. We have some time on our side so our suggestion is to get the right people and partners in place to not just help our cities with their future planning but also our people — all over the world — make the best decisions about how autonomous vehicles can make our lives and safety truly better over the coming decades and generations.