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Construction and town planning Updated: 26 Jan 2018

How cities will change with the arrival of self-driving cars

Urban planning in the 20th Century was developed on the basis of the traditional concept of a car with a driver. The arrival of self-driving cars will make it necessary to rethink the design of cities and their suburbs.

Since 2014, when Google presented a video with its prototype of a self-driving car, much has been said about the implications that a massive rollout of these vehicles would have. What will be their affect on traffic safety? What will happen to the insurance industry? And what about all those people who make their living behind the steering wheel of a car, truck or bus?

Meanwhile, the struggle between some of the most important companies on the planet to develop autonomous cars – Google, Uber and Tesla – has also made many headlines. However, one key aspect of this debate has gone unnoticed: the effect of self-driving cars on cities.

A large number of cities in the Western world, and especially in the United States, were designed on the premise that cars are basic and indispensable. But if cars, the true kings of the city, no longer have drivers, what will become of our urban areas?

The experts can´t agree on the answer. They all do agree that the widespread use of self-driving cars will be a reality during the first half of this century; in the European Union alone, according to PwC, there will be 27 million driverless vehicles circulating by 2030. However, the experts don´t agree on much more – not even whether this will definitely be good for the quality of urban life.

The most optimistic authorities on the matter assume that the widespread use of self-driving cars will translate into less traffic and a decline in the need for parking lots and garages, two undoubtedly positive effects.

The reduction in traffic will occur because there will be far fewer accidents, and as a result fewer delays, bottlenecks and traffic jams. Without human distractions and with all the technology at their service, self-driving cars will be much safer. A report by McKinsey predicts that the number of traffic accidents in the United States will fall by 90%, thanks to self-driving cars.

Garages will be less important for another, more debatable reason: self-driving cars will cause a dramatic increase in ride sharing. According to a report by the Boston Consulting Group, by 2030, one of every four miles driven in the United States will be driven in a shared vehicle, thus reducing the number of cars in ownership. And if you don´t own car, you don´t need a garage.

Based upon these premises, fewer cars will be in circulation, but they will be in nearly constant use, in order to attend to the calls from users, who will have subscriptions or else call occasionally via an application, as is already being done with Uber, Cabify or by-the -minute rental services like Car2Go.

One city, two bubbles?

One of the most optimistic experts is Kinder Baumgardner, director of an urban design and landscaping business, SWA, which has carried out various projects for the state of Texas, known for its enormous highways. He conceives of the cities of the future as a group of pleasant “walkable bubbles,” which citizens will reach in driverless cars, over large streets designed for car traffic – in effect, car bubbles.

The idea of “walkable bubbles” and the periphery of the big cities, conjure up an almost pastoral image.  The total number of cars will be reduced and that will free up a great deal of space in urban centers that is currently devoted to garages. The places where people used to park will be occupied by small businesses and stores. In addition, the suburbs will become a more pleasant place and the one most in demand, since its principal disadvantage, driving, will disappear. The characteristic cul-de-sacs, or dead end streets, in the U.S. suburbs will exist in a permanent Sunday, since no one will be afraid that a self-driving car may cause an accident.

A report by two U.S. institutions associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Urban Economics Lab and the Center for Real Estate (which studies the effect of self-driving cars on real estate) also underscores the possible impact of driverless cars on the future of garages.  “In denser urban areas, the need for parking space may decrease dramatically, it says, adding: "Leading architecture firms are starting to build  garages with exterior ramps so that the structures can easily be repurposed  into office space.”

This optimistic view of the future of cities and the self-driving car has its downside: to what degree is it certain that the development of the self-driving car implies more shared mobility and fewer cars in ownership?

A study by the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis came to the conclusion that in the United States, mobility applications like Lyft and Uber have caused only a minimal reduction in the number of owned vehicles, and have also led to fewer journeys on foot, bicycle and public transportation. The authors said the self-driving cars are contributing to the increase in the number of miles that are traveled by car in the principal cities studied.”

For that reason, the report by the Urban Economics Lab and the Center for Real Estate asks the authorities to take action: “Without policies that encourage ridesharing of autonomous vehicles, the reductions in travel time and cost will likely increase the number of single-occupant vehicle trips and their distances in the sprawling metropolises.”

Another shadow over the supposedly positive impact of the self-driving car on the cities is the need for the cities themselves to be technologically prepared. Can self-driving cars improve an environment that accepts them without the appropriate technological preparation? In 2015, the U.S. National League of Cities made a study of 68 U.S. cities, including the 50 largest ones, and found that only 6% had, in their mobility plans, studied the possible future impact of self-driving cars.

Given this skepticism, Baumgardner in his report “Beyond Google’s Cute Carinvokes a historical precedent. When combustion motors were invented, he recalls, people use to say that horseless carriages were scary. ”You will still be able to ride a horse and you will still be able to drive a car. But self-driving Luddites will be relegated to side roads with enormous insurance premiums.”