CAVs, Big Data, and the Future of Urban Design

City design has long been shaped by modes of transportation. The transition is easy to spot as you move westward across America. Relatively compact eastern cities initially grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people traveled by foot or by horse. Scattered across the plains, and particularly throughout the vast expanses of Texas and the Southwest, are cities filled with wide thoroughfares and sprawling suburbs, designed to match the rise of car culture. A large-scale shift to autonomous vehicle transportation will once again mold our cities in new ways. I wrote recently about this coming shift, focusing in particular on the reuse of space currently dominated by parking. This post will build on that theme by exploring the ways in which big data generated by new transportation technologies will guide city planners and business strategists in creating new urban environments.

Many cities already take advantage of more traditional forms of transportation data to improve urban planning. For example, analysis of population density and traffic patterns facilitated Moscow’s 50% increase in public transit capacity, which enabled the city to reduce driving lanes in favor of more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Looking to the future, New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress seeks to help cities harness the power of big data to “become more productive and livable.” Today, more data exists regarding our transportation habits than ever before. Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, along with the popularity of “check-in” apps such as Foursquare, have exponentially increased the amount of data collected as we go through our daily routines. The advent of CAVs, along with smaller scale technologies such as bike-share and scooter-share programs, will only accelerate this trend.

Currently, most of this data is collected and held by private companies. This valuable information is already being aggregated and used by companies such as Sasaki, a design firm that uses data from Yelp, Google, and others to help businesses and developers understand how their planned projects can best fit in with a community’s existing living patterns. The information is able to help businesses understand, on a block-by-block basis, where their target market lives, shops, and travels. As companies such as Uber and Waymo roll out fleets of autonomous vehicles in the coming years that collect data on more and more people, such information will increasingly drive business planning.

Just as this wealth of data is impacting business decisions, making it available to the public sector would mark a significant upgrade in the capabilities of urban planners. To be sure, granting the government easy access to such fine-grained information about our daily lives comes with its own set of challenges, which my colleague Ian Williams has explored in a previous post. From the perspective of planning utility however, the benefits are clear. By better understanding exactly what times and locations present the worst traffic challenges, cities can target infrastructure improvements, tollways, or carpool benefits to alleviate the problem. A more detailed understanding of which routes people take to and from home, work, shopping, and entertainment districts can allow for more efficient zoning and the development of more walkable neighborhoods. This type of improvement has the potential to improve the livability of city centers so as to guard against the danger that CAVs will facilitate a new round of exurban flight.

As with previous shifts in transportation, the widespread move to CAVs expected in the coming years will be a key driver of the future shape of our cities. Urban planners and business strategists will play a featured role in determining whether this technology ushers in a new round of sprawl, or facilitates the growth and attractiveness of metropolitan centers. The intelligent and conscientious use of data generated by CAVs and other emerging technologies can help fuel smart development to ensure that our downtown spaces, and the communities they support, continue to thrive.