How Will CAVs Change the Shape of Our Cities?

The rapidly approaching deployment of commercially available CAVs has led city planners to begin grappling with the ways in which this new technology is expected to shape our built environment.  A 2017 report from MIT’s Urban Economics Lab and Center for Real Estate, financed by Capital One, explores potential real estate changes driven by CAVs. The report describes two theories of what the effect will be. First, CAVs could reinforce demand for central city living by relieving congestion and need for parking, making cities more livable. Alternatively, they could lead to a new wave of suburbanization by increasing the distances people are willing to travel.

As much as CAVs will shape the future of cities though, design choices made by city planners today will also impact the ways in which CAVs are utilized. Cities that are designed primarily for drivers, with limited walkability and few public transit options, are likely to experience a rehash of all the problems with 20th century suburban sprawl: congestion, increasing infrastructure needs on the urban fringe, and a reduced tax base within city limits, to name a few. There are, however, affirmative steps that cities can take to disincentivize sprawl in favor of growth in the urban core. Two of these policy options, which I will discuss below, are smart pricing of vehicle travel and increased walkability of city centers.

Many cities have already taken steps to make solo trips in cars less attractive. Whether these policies take the form of increasing options for light rail and other public transportation, designating carpool lanes, or varying parking costs depending on the time of day, many of them may not be significantly altered by the arrival of CAVs. One change that could be facilitated by CAVs is the possibility for more fine-grained trip pricing. A city that is committed to reducing congestion could vary ride pricing for people who carpool, or for trips made outside of the heaviest use periods. Those hoping to incentivize public transit could provide reduced fares for “last mile” trips to and from light rail or bus stations.

The prevalence of CAVs will also provide cities an opportunity to rethink the design of their urban landscapes. Most American cities are dominated by parking, with 30% of the space in many downtown areas being taken up by parking spaces. This is unsurprising in light of the fact that the typical car is parked around 95% of the time. The rise of CAVs will provide cities with an opportunity to adapt much of this space to more productive use through business development, building downtown housing, and expanding green space. A key challenge here for cities will be in managing the transition. A study by the Regional Planning Association for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut found that land use planning is unlikely to be “permanently altered” by CAVs until 2040 and beyond. In the intervening years, cities can begin to take steps to plan for adaptive reuse of space. This includes such design choices as building parking garages with features that allow them to be easily converted into housing and considering zoning changes that will facilitate a more livable, walkable urban core.

CAVs have the potential to contribute to the continued revitalization of city centers through the creation of more resident-friendly downtowns, or to kickstart an accelerated urban sprawl. Smart, data-driven trip pricing and infrastructure designed to smooth the transitioning needs of cities can help guide the use of CAVs in ways that facilitate compact growth and walkable communities.