How Autonomous Vehicles Could Transform the Demographics of U.S. Cities

Cities have historically been shaped by the way people travel. American cities have morphed and expanded with changes in transportation systems from the walking city (pre-1880), to a period with streetcars (1880 to 1920) to our current automobile city (post-1920 but mostly after the freeway era started in 1945). The dense mixed-use agglomeration of residences and workplaces in the pre-automobile era have now been broken up with the addition of sprawling suburbs and dispersed industrial districts.

If shared driverless vehicles turn out to be as inexpensive, convenient and safe as expected, and they become the dominant mode of transport for a large section of the population, how would our cities change? Where would people want to live and work? Research at the Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization at Georgia Tech suggests that different types of households and businesses would respond differently to shared autonomous vehicles. Households headed by people 40 years old and younger with or without kids would tend to move further away from central city locations for cheaper housing and better schools, while households headed by people older than 40 would move closer to city centers to take advantage of the amenities of a dense urban setting. The wait time between hailing and boarding a car would be lower in dense urban areas than in the suburbs.

The research also projects small changes in the location of businesses that accentuate the current trends of consolidation and concentration of finance, insurance and real estate offices, as well as public and business services, in city centers. Most other types of companies, except retail, will move a little further out to take advantage of autonomous freight corridors and space that is freed up from the repurposed parking lots. Retail activity will be more evenly distributed across the city. While these scenarios are not predictions, they indicate broad trends that city leaders will need to consider in their long-range planning.

How will public transit services fare? Opinions differ widely. There is some agreement that high-speed transit networks on a dedicated right-of-way may continue to serve large populations. These services would potentially coordinate more closely with ride-sharing providers on timing and capacity. Transit services could also have their own fleets of autonomous vehicles.

Research on the impact of driverless cars on cities mostly indicates that urban areas have an opportunity to become vibrant, livable and inclusive. While there would be a continuing suburbanization trend, the city centers would also benefit from more accessibility and better amenities, partly through space made available from repurposed parking spots. Walking and biking would be safer and more convenient, as on-street parking would be converted to sidewalks and bike lanes, and attractive design and landscape features could be added. With the lower cost of transportation and repurposed space available for multifamily housing, more parts of the city can be made affordable to households with limited means. This future is possible only with deliberate and smart planning of our cities.

Subhrajit Guhathakurta is professor and chair of the School of City and Regional Planning and director of the Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization at Georgia Tech.

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