Driverless cars: They're about a whole lot more than roads and traffic signals

Autonomous vehicles, AVs, driverless cars, trucks, shuttles, buses. They're being evaluated and fine-tuned at test facilities and will be operating on city streets soon, although when their prime time debut will happen is hotly debated. While many cities are actively working on how to accommodate them, others aren't sure how or what they should do, if anything. There's a lot of uncertainty about what the specific impacts of driverless cars will be for cities and the people who live in them, but one thing seems to be inevitable: they will be far-reaching and varied. In the story below, a panel of transportation professionals at Smart Cities Week outlines just how extensive the impacts could be — for better or worse. — Doug Peeples


It's been said more than once that AVs will change today's transportation networks to a degree not seen since the first automobiles were produced. That's a pretty big claim. But it's not the whole story.

As David Rouse, managing director of research and planning services for the American Planning Association pointed out, the initial deployment and widespread adoption of driverless cars and other autonomous vehicles will definitely change how transportation networks are designed and what they will require. But as AVs become more common they will affect land use and the built environment, with one possibility being encouraging urban sprawl.

Equity and access also will be issues, as in how will AVs affect low-income and other underserved segments of the population in terms of their access to opportunities like employment and health care?

Nico Larco, a University of Oregon associate professor of architecture and co-founder of the Sustainable Cities Initiative, put it succinctly. "AVs are NOT only a transportation issue," he said while expanding Rouse's list of impacts to include the physical design of cities, population density, municipal budgets and economic disruption ranging from significant to extreme.

Too much thinking about tech
For Russ Brooks, director of smart cities for Transportation for America, city leaders and planners generally focus too much on AV-related technology and not enough on being committed to equity, accessibility and affordability. He also noted that cities need to remember that the 20th century regulatory framework can't and won't apply to driverless cars, and added that cities need to work with each other and with private partners. And, they need to share their failures among each other. "That's an important part of the process," Brooks said.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation's Michael Lim said automation represents an excellent opportunity to make massive improvements in the car-centric city's mobility network. "But if we get it wrong, we could get 'Carmageddon 3.0."

What about parking?
There are many other possible impacts AVs could have on cities, but one that could have truly massive effects on cities is on the entire concept of city parking. As Larco said, AVs could mean cities would need 10-15% of the parking garages and spaces they now have because AVs can park elsewhere once their passengers have been dropped at their destinations.

In his possible scenario, AVs would free up land for more housing and infill which could make it more affordable. Roadways could be made over to be more green and enjoyable. On the other hand, city budgets would need to find other sources of revenue when most of the parking meters and parking garage tax payments go away.

There are other issues that will affect cities as AVs become more common on their streets. But as Larco pointed out, city leaders and planners need to remember to keep one essential goal in mind: "Put quality of life and what your city wants first."

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.