How might autonomous vehicles change cities?

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are expected to transform a number of industries and dramatically change the way people live their everyday lives. On a more macro level, however, the infrastructure adjustments that may come as a result of the widespread use of AVs could transform urban landscapes and make cities more eco-friendly.

Both ride-sharing and a drop in private car ownership could reduce the need for parking infrastructure, opening large swaths of space for redevelopment. Ride-sharing may also combine with AVs' safer driving to decrease traffic congestion, opening city throughways to other forms of transportation and wholesale reuse.

Perhaps most importantly, the use of driverless cars could help cities reduce their enormous carbon footprints and make them more environmentally sustainable.

No more parking infrastructure

Most AVs are expected to be communal, significantly reducing the volume of individual vehicles on city roads every day. One study from KPMG found that the use of AVs could drop current private vehicle sales by 50% in some urban areas by 2035, greatly reducing infrastructure stress and freeing up huge areas for repurposing.

With half of all private cars off the roads, there could be a marked reduction in the need for parking infrastructure. In Seattle alone, 40% of the city's space is used exclusively for parking, according to a report from the Research Institute for Housing America. Opening up these areas for redevelopment would put more space at the disposal of city planners, allowing them to build residential buildings, business complexes and other facilities to help meet the demands of a rapidly growing population.

The United Nations projects that more than two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, a marked increase from the current figure of around 55%. The need to fundamentally change the way cities are designed to meet the demands of this growth could make AVs a vital part of urban planning and development in the future.

An interconnected city at night.Cities could be transformed by the introduction of autonomous vehicles.

Fewer cars means less traffic

AVs could also have an immediate impact on traffic congestion. As already mentioned, they are expected to greatly reduce the number of vehicles, removing much of the pressure on many cities' already overburdened roads and highways. According to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report, the average commuter spends 54 hours per year in traffic, a figure that has grown exponentially in recent years and is expected to continue to do so unless city planners dramatically reimagine urban centers.

More than their impact on traffic congestion, however, driverless vehicles almost eliminate the risk of human error. What that means in practice is that vehicles could drive much closer together, congestion-causing accidents might become less frequent, and fewer bouts of stop-and-go driving may increase traffic flows, according to the National Law Review. The combination of these changes could significantly reduce traffic time and allow city planners to repurpose car lanes for public transit, cyclists, and other uses.

Going green

Beyond the immense infrastructure transformation that could take place once AVs become the norm, driverless cars are expected to have a positive impact on the environment. Electric AVs could reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.

More than that, AVs won't require the same utilities needed to assist drivers, like street lights and traffic signals. Street lighting accounts for some 90% of light pollution, according to a team of researchers at the Delft University of Technology. The drop in the need for round-the-clock lighting could greatly decrease one of cities' greatest sources of pollution.

Big changes may be on the horizon

The driverless car revolution is becoming an increasingly imminent reality, and its effects are likely to upend much of modern life as we currently know it. By transforming urban centers from the inside, cities will become greener and more sustainable in the long term, and they will be better equipped to absorb a rapidly expanding urban population.

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