Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly supplant people-driven vehicles, the horse-and-buggies of the 21st century. Given the pace of technological change, that day is closer than you may think.
As recently as 2004, the Department of Defense’s research arm sponsored a race for self-driving vehicles over a 142-mile desert course. That year, 15 self-driving vehicles entered the race, but none made it to the finish line. The following year, four autonomous vehicles successfully completed a 132-mile desert route within the required 10-hour limit. A short 10 years later, Google’s autonomous cars have traveled nearly 2 million miles and its cars legally drive the roads of Mountain View. Testing centers for autonomous vehicles have been established in Michigan, Sweden and Japan.
Our land-use planning and zoning regimes, however, are tailored to meeting the needs of driven cars. Land-use plans and standards will need to be changed to maximize the benefits of shifts from the two-car family to the shared-driverless-car community. As many people as possible need to share his or her vision of the future as part of this process for change.
Planning rules for housing, stores and offices require parking areas. Roads and streets are sized to accommodate a flow of traffic based on models of driven cars. The needs of cars dominate cities and suburbs, and have done so for decades. Everywhere you look you see vehicles: Not just the hordes of cars moving on streets and highways, but the endless rows of cars parked at the curbs and road shoulders, and vast parking lots that envelop shopping centers, business parks, sports stadiums and other destinations. In some cities, parking makes up a quarter of the land use.
As autonomous vehicles begin displacing the ones requiring a human at the wheel, people will no longer need to keep a car parked near where they live. The parking space will no longer be a valued office perk. Parking areas around shopping centers and stadiums will begin to disappear because autonomous cars can be stored (or used) elsewhere and just come to pick up the passengers when needed. Our land-use standards do not contemplate a traffic pattern where picking up and dropping off passengers is a dominant feature of the transportation landscape and where parking is almost an afterthought.
Over time — perhaps decades, perhaps sooner — as more people turn to autonomous cars for transport from home to work, school and play, it will no longer be necessary for each person or family to own a car. The overall fleet of vehicles can be managed more efficiently to serve more people, much like what is happening with the increased use of car-sharing services and chauffeured services. Fewer personal vehicles will also reduce the need to require parking areas.
It will take a concerted effort over many years by planners, engineers, social advocates and affected communities to decide how to best address changes that will occur. Transit and social service agencies should see the development of autonomous vehicles as a laboratory for experimentation. I see great opportunities for positive change:
- Reduced housing costs and increased capacity by eliminating the need for high rises and homes to build expensive parking garages.
- Land for other, more productive uses as shopping centers give up vast parking areas to areas designed for efficient passenger pick-up and drop-off.
- Improved water quality, as land now covered with concrete for parking is converted to grass.
- More biking and walking paths as street lanes formerly used for parking are converted to these uses, and for lanes for bus rapid transit.
- Enhanced transportation for low-income and underserved communities through use of autonomous microbuses, subsidized access to autonomous cars and other means.
Collective brainstorming will develop ideas that can be discussed, refined and eventually implemented as we enter the era of autonomous vehicles. Everyone has a stake. What are your thoughts on how to adopt land-uses to autonomous vehicles?
This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 16, 2015.