Will Autonomous Vehicles Be Good for Cities?

Google self-driving Lexus cars / AP Photo/Eric Risberg, via Curbed

A New Yorker can put their arm up in the street in Manhattan and flag down a taxi in a few minutes. Taxis are readily available because it’s a dense urban environment. But with a smart phone and an app like Uber or Lyft, anyone can find a ride fast and experience the benefits of density without needing to live in it. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles (AVs) — which will likely travel in highly-efficient packs via routes optimized for demand — could bring even more of the advantages of dense places to those that aren’t. Rohit Aggarwala, former director of NYC’s office of long-term planning and sustainability and now co-head of Sidewalk Labs, wonders whether autonomous vehicles will then be good for cities. Will they further reduce the relative benefits of city life? Will they even encourage sprawl?

According to Aggarwala, who spoke at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City, there are six primary attributes of density — three positive efficiencies and three causes of “friction,” or disadvantages. On the positive side, high levels of density mean lower consumption of energy, water, and carbon on a per capita basis. “If you have less space, you consume less.” There is also higher asset utilization — less space and resources are wasted. There are easier physical interactions. With density, the number of unplanned interactions — so critical to everything from market and community development to finding friends and a life partner — increase.

Frictions include a greater reliance on central systems, which can cause problems if those systems are over-capacity or break down. There’s also a greater need for courtesy. In dense places where people are nearly on top of each other all the time, people must expend more energy to avoid annoying each other. And there’s also the need for more coordination. “There are more hassles in dense urban life, hence the need for more coordination to resolve them.”

If there is a positive balance between the efficiencies and frictions, people move into cities. If the costs get too high, they move out, Aggarwala contends. Technology plays a critical role in maintaining this balance. Technology can either make urban living easier or, if these systems are poorly applied, add to the costs. And if they make the many benefits of density, such as physical interaction, less important, that also serves to undermine the value of places like Manhattan.

Aggarwala argued that the telephone, one of the most important technologies of the last century, “undermined physical interaction. The telephone became the agent of sprawl.” In the same way, Uber and Lyft also make hailing a taxi, which used to require physical interaction, something digital that “works in sprawl.” Over time, the “urban convenience of hailing a taxi has become universal.”

Now imagine a highly-efficient, high-speed, coordinated system of AVs, which could make access to centralized transportation systems even less of a necessity. There will no longer be a need to live near a subway, bus, or rail station, or even own a car, with a community sharing rides in AVs. Furthermore, “if everyone is their own transit stop, will we even need transit-oriented development?”

With delivery of products via drones or autonomous delivery services, there is also less of a need to live near a shopping district. “Shopping could just become a destination luxury experience.” With the rise of ubiquitous, high-speed broadband, working from home will be even easier, as employees can create tele-presences for themselves in virtual work environments. And with distributed renewable energy facilities, suburbs could become as energy-efficient as dense cities, removing the appeal of living an environmental lifestyle in the city.

With these expected changes coming, will the value of density continue to outweigh the disadvantages in the future?

For Aggarwala, it will be critical for cities to get technology right in order to further reduce the frictions of density and make future urban life as pleasing as possible. “We need to use big data to make centralized systems higher performing.” For example, that will mean using data to make New York City’s urban transportation system much smarter and more responsive.

Today, the city’s subway seems to be a near-universal source of frustration, as outdated systems mean a power outage shuts down whole lines for hours and rush hour congestion makes the daily commute nearly unbearable. The answer, for Aggarwala, is to “layer digital and physical infrastructure” to make these systems work better.

Furthermore, “we need apps that enable people to share things more easily. We need ubiquitous monitoring systems, so police will treat people better. We need to reduce the coordination problems.” We need subways and bike share systems to connect seamlessly with AV stations.

“Technology can make density more attractive or not, urban life better or not. And reduce demand for cities and increase sprawl, or not.” It will really depend on urban communities and their political leaders to drive improvements that will maintain the appeal of city life and save the environment from sprawl.

For another perspective on what AVs mean for cities, read about SWA President Kinder Baumgardner’s vision.

2 thoughts on “Will Autonomous Vehicles Be Good for Cities?

  1. wcsulliv 05/18/2017 / 6:22 am

    Thanks for this, Jared. I suspect that AVs will have a huge impact on urban design and on people who live in cities. Imagine what it’ll be like when there are many AVs available. You’ll be able to call one up on an Uber-like app and it’ll take you where you want to go. You get out without the hassle or cost of parking. In such a world, what’s the incentive of even owning a car in a city?
    It’s easy to imagine cities in which 70%, 80%, or 90% of current parking spaces are no longer needed. What will happen to these spaces? My guess is that this will be a huge opportunity for landscape architects to infuse nature into our cities and in doing so, increase the permeable surface, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improve the health and wellbeing of urban residents.
    There is a lot to like about the advent of AVs in our communities.

  2. wcsulliv 05/18/2017 / 6:25 am

    One more comment. I so much appreciate that you attend conferences such as the APA, Jared, and then share your observations with us. For me, it’s one of the huge benefits of my ASLA membership. Thanks for your consistently fine reporting and your ability to address topics that have so much value to your readers. Great work, Jared.

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