Will Self-Driving Cars Fuel Urban Sprawl?

broadacre city

We have been debating the future of our cities in the era of the self-driving car or autonomous vehicle (or AV). Now Christopher Mims at the Wall Street Journal weighs in with his view and not surprisingly, it is a bit contrarian. I admire Chris because he is fearless in his predictions, from his 2012 prediction that 3D printing will go the way of virtual reality to how robot baristas will put the espresso bar out of business. Now Chris takes on the world of AVs, and suggests that they will fuel urban sprawl.


Institute Without Boundaries/via How the self-driving car might make our cities better and greener/ Martini and movie configurations

Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car, which sits idle roughly 95% of the time. With the savings, you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children. Your commute will be downright luxurious, quiet time in a vehicle designed to allow you to work or relax. Shared self-driving cars will have taken so many vehicles off the road—up to 80% of them, according to one Massachusetts Institute of Technology study—that you’re either getting to work in record time or traveling farther in the same time, to a new class of exurbs.


© Matthew Spremulli via MIT News The 'burbs are back, but they will be different this time.

We have certainly heard this before; Alison Arrieff noted in the New York Times that "If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive." Tim deChant also chimed in, noting that "Self-driving cars are one of the biggest threats to the future of cities."

Mims quotes economist Jed Kolko, who has also predicted that the future of America is suburban, and that millennials are moving there in preference to staying in cities. (covered in TreeHugger here). Mims concludes:

It is a kind of wishful thinking, an act of technological determinism, to think that self-driving cars will override Americans’ longstanding preference for wide open spaces.

Mims also doesn’t mention another reason that millennials are moving to the suburbs: they don’t the money to do otherwise. Kolko told the Wall Street Journal:

Rich, young people are outbidding others for urban housing and so the faster growth in the suburbs certainly reflects tight housing supply in dense neighborhoods.
city view

© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells How self-driving cars might improve our cities and towns

But what if AVs change that? In fact, many planners and visionaries think that cities will become more attractive and affordable. Interviewing Nigel Bidwell of Farrells, and Rachel Skinner of WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff (authors of Making Better Places) in London recently, they noted that AVs might well lead to a new wave of urban development and intensification- that in London alone there are 8,000 hectares (19,768 acres) of land lost to parking and servicing cars- that 15 to 20 percent of London could be freed up for development, which could generate “millions- or even billions- of new value and/ or construction cost savings. This can be secured without needing to compromise on development quality, while securing freedom from current planning constraints around parking.”

If suddenly one had all this extra urban land to build housing, then perhaps it would not be so expensive and those millennials might be able to stay in dense neighbourhoods. The cities, with all that additional revenue from new housing and land sales, might actually have enough money to improve the school systems that seem to be the biggest problem of living in American cities.

View down on Futurama

technology almanac/ Separated streets in Futurama/via Will self-driving cars lead to grade-separated cities?

I suspect that it is likely that AVs might be the spark of an entirely new urban form, just like the streetcar suburbs of a hundred years ago, where houses were built to a density that people can walk to the main street where the shopping and the transit is, and the automobile suburb is designed around the fact that everyone has a convenient private car or two to get to the mall or the superstore. If people have to wait for an AV to show up every time they need a quart of milk, they may prefer to live in a denser, walkable or cycleable community. If as Mims notes that there are only 20% as many cars, then it is going to be awfully hard to get one at rush hour or when school lets out, so living close to transit might be a desirable backup.

And in fact, the truest statement in Mim’s article may well be that “When it comes to self-driving cars, the old maxim that nobody knows anything could hardly be more true.”