Self Driving Cars & the Future of Urban Environments

By: Austin Good

Sustainable Associate 

Self driving cars are coming. It’s not a question of if but when. Google has recently unveiled its latest self driving machine which will soon be hitting public roads for testing . It is theorized that these self-driving cars will be far safer than human operated cars as they are able to constantly survey their surroundings and are programed to take less risks than a person might. What if the introduction of self-driving cars could reduce the 1.3 million deaths from car crashes each year – most of which are largely due to human error. In addition, self-driving cars could also create huge advances in efficiency by communicating with each other on the road. The benefits seem overwhelmingly positive. But what will this mean for our cities?

Public car pools

Googles Latest Self Driving Car Prototype via Google

Once self-driving cars take hold, one likely scenario is that people won’t own private cars anymore.
Instead, whenever you would need to get around you would simply summon a car from the public pool, probably with your smartphone, and then be taken to your destination. This ‘ride share’  system could be run by private companies or by municipalities. This scenario would not only be more efficient than today’s private car model, but would be much more cost effective. Socially, this could mean more equal access to transportation regardless of wealth, ability, or age. This is also a huge win for the environment as only a fraction of cars would need to be manufactured.

Fewer parking lots, more parks

The urban environment we have built is largely based off of our love affair with the car. The infrastructure that cars require for parking and driving has shaped our cities. So what will self-driving cars and the likely outcome of car pools impact this infrastructure? Simply put, we would have a lot more space. Without the need for so many parking lots and parking garages per capita, imagine what we could design. Former parking areas would create  new infill opportunities within our current city boundaries, helping to rein in urban sprawl. We could create more walkable neighborhoods or reintroduce natural areas in the hearts of our cities. The amount of impervious area in our built environment could be cut down drastically, allowing for better handling of storm water and urban runoff. The safety and efficiency of self-driving cars could allow cities to reduce the number of lanes on roads, which could be reclaimed for green areas, expanded sidewalks, or bike lanes.  Self-driving cars would make it much safer to ride a bike or walk near roadways by reducing collisions. This could create new bike and pedestrian networks allowing people to live healthier lifestyles.
Space once used for parking and road lanes could
become urban gathering places, much like
Denver’s 16th St. Mall.

One potential challenge of the self-driving can could be an increase in urban sprawl. Just as the car helped to create the suburbs, self-driving cars could allow people to live even further from work – due to increase driving speed, safety, and decreased congestion.  This could perpetuate the problems with urban sprawl, such as taking away farm land and natural areas.

In all likelihood, self driving cars are the future. This future presents many opportunities for us to strengthen our cities economically, socially and environmentally. In order to insure success, we need to begin imagining a new transportation system and a vision for our cities. Through innovative design and smart planning we’ll be able to create truly sustainable places in our transition to a more automated world.

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