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The Cities of the Future: How Autonomous Vehicles Might Reshape Cities

Iconic American cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami evoke images of towering buildings, bustling streets, and traffic – but autonomous vehicles are poised to reshape those cities. As we move closer to fully autonomous vehicles becoming commonplace, we also approach cities that will function entirely differently.

The shift of self-driving vehicles becoming part of city life is already happening. The Bloomberg Aspen Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles mapped out 136 cities piloting autonomous vehicles from October 2017 to November 2019. As we transition into a world where autonomous vehicles become primary modes of transportation, the cities will evolve, too.

Reduced Traffic Congestion

One of the most notable and most immediate changes prompted by widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles may be a reduction in traffic congestion. Autonomous rideshare services could reduce the number of vehicles on the road, decreasing congestion in turn. Vehicles, themselves, may be more compact, particularly with the increased use of electronic vehicles and the lower-weight benefits that come with streamlined designs.

The very technology that autonomous vehicles operate can also play a role in reducing congestion. Data sharing amongst vehicles can help to identify the fastest routes to destinations. A vehicle programmed to seek out alternative routes can avoid congestion. The eventual implementation of data and communications that incorporate stoplights could make for improved traffic management, helping to keep traffic flowing smoothly and making gridlock a thing of the past.

Less Parking

Personal vehicles spend large amounts of the day parked, but autonomous vehicles that could be shared and summoned via an app could spend more time on the road and less time parked. With one vehicle being able to do the work of several personally owned vehicles, the number of personally owned vehicles would likely decrease.

With fewer personal vehicles sitting in parking garages and taking up roadside parking spaces, the demand for parking areas will decrease. Garages, or portions of them, could be repurposed into other types of spaces, and some on-street parking could also be used for other purposes, such as expanded outdoor dining.

Those parking garages that are still needed can be located nearly anywhere, meaning parking could shift into less valuable property areas. Because the vehicles would be summoned via app, their vicinity in relation to residences or businesses really wouldn’t matter. Those garages in prime residential or retail areas could be put to more valuable and productive use, further changing the city’s face.

Increased Green Space

The reduced need for parking could open up new opportunities for additional green space installations. Trees might be planted in the areas that were previously dedicated to curbside parking. A parking garage’s upper level could be converted to a large-scale garden. These increased green spaces could bring valuable mental health benefits to residents, reconnecting cities to nature and starting to strip away pieces of their industrialized facades.

Redesigned Streets

City streets, themselves, could also change. If self-driving vehicles become predominant on city streets, streets could feasibly be narrowed and lanes could be eliminated. With reduced traffic and less parking needed, cities could redesign streets to incorporate more human space, whether that consists of open spaces, small parks, larger walkways, or other elements. There would presumably be more space for bike lanes, and while drop off and loading zones will be prominent, there will be increased opportunities for landscaping and more multipurpose spaces.

Those drop off and loading zones are likely to become the new entrances to buildings, redirecting foot traffic and potentially reshaping how building entrances are positioned and framed.

Reduced Pollution

The potential for shared autonomous vehicles creates more carpooling opportunities. With fewer vehicles on the road, traffic congestion could be reduced, meaning vehicles get to their destinations faster and spend less time idling in city streets. These factors would contribute to reduced city air pollution.

The continuing development of electric vehicles also bodes well for pollution reduction. Fleets of electric autonomous vehicles would offer the best of both worlds, helping to reduce air pollution on multiple fronts and being altogether more eco-friendly.

Transformed Mass Transit

The adoption of self-driving vehicles could also transform mass transit. Self-driving taxis and buses may become mainstream, and robotaxis are already being piloted in Cupertino, California and more.

While the subway operation may continue without initial changes, autonomous vehicles could increase subway use. The last mile transit that a passenger needs to take from their home to the subway, and vice versa, remains a barrier, unless that person has a vehicle of their own. Being able to summon an autonomous vehicle rideshare could help to more readily and, perhaps, more affordably connect passengers to public transportation.

Population Changes

One of the major debates surrounding self-driving vehicles focuses on whether they will increase city population densities or lead to more city residents choosing to move into more suburban areas and commute to work. Autonomous vehicles could allow passengers to do work during their daily commute, putting that time to productive use and increasing the appeal of living outside of the city.

The Cities of Tomorrow

While it’s easy to predict some of the effects self-driving vehicles will have on cities, other effects remain more uncertain. The timeline in which we will start to see some of these transformations is also still evolving. There are still many hurdles to overcome before fully autonomous vehicles are able to operate in cities, and widespread adoption of these vehicles will also take time. However, autonomous vehicles are poised to reshape cities in multiple ways. As these vehicles’ use becomes more widespread, cities may become more spacious, transportation may become more convenient, and the very way that cities are designed may start to change and evolve, in turn.

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