Urban design and planning for a self driving world

Google’s driverless car

Driverless cars are coming. It's not a question of “if”, but “when”. Google’s self-driving car has already driven 700 000 miles, without accident. It’s not just Google, though: car manufacturers are competing to be the first to launch a commercially available car that drives itself.

How will driverless cars change the field of urban design and planning?


If driverless cars are going to change urban design, people will have to actually buy and use them. So first, a word on adoption. In order for mass adoption to happen, self-driving cars would have to provide an advantage over regular cars—otherwise, why bother?

Not having to pay attention to the road is an obvious benefit of driverless cars. This means blind people could get in a car and ‘drive’ somewhere safely. Speaking of safety, these cars could be quite a bit safer than traditional cars. A driver can’t fall asleep behind the wheel of a car that doesn’t have one, or drive it while drunk.

However, I think the most important quality of driverless cars is their ability to be on the road nearly all the time. They are not limited by their human driver. A self-driving car does not need to wait for you to get back in it to go somewhere. Today, when people commute to work—or go anywhere, for that matter—their cars will typically sit unused in the parking lot while the driver is working. In fact, the average car is parked for about 96% of its lifespan. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds this wasteful.

Driverless cars are an obvious solution to this problem. One car could handle the driving needs of many more people than a regular car. Theoretically, if drivers only drive their car for about 4% of a car’s lifespan, one car could be enough for 25 people. More realistically, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where one might buy a subscription for a number of rides per month from a company that operates a fleet of self driving cars.

Clearly, driverless cars offer several benefits over regular cars. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will have one. Plenty of people will want to own their own car and drive it—classic car enthusiasts, for example. However, there is also a number of people who currently do not own cars, but who could be potential customers of self driving cars (for instance, blind people).

Historical adoption rates for various technologies. X-axis: percentage of population.
Historical adoption rates for various technologies. X-axis: percentage of population.

These historic adoption rates for various technologies provide a good indicator for how much and how fast this technology could be adopted. No one knows what the curve for driverless cars will look like. Considering the price of a car, perhaps not as steep as the one for cellphones, but then again, the cost of that car could be dramatically lower than a regular car nowadays.

Need for cars reduced

I believe that the need for cars will be reduced drastically. The main reason is the scenario outlined earlier. I foresee someone (if I have the capital, maybe I will) starting a company where people could buy a subscription for a certain number of rides, or miles, or minutes in a driverless car per month. Since the cars would be on the road nearly constantly, they could probably serve up to 20 people. That means the cost of driving to work could drop more than tenfold. Who wouldn’t go for a deal like that?

Research firm Alix Partners indicates that car-sharing programs will displace 1.2 million new vehicle sales by 2020. For each shared car, 32 new cars will go unsold.


Not only is the need for cars themselves reduced, the need for parking is reduced even further. There will be fewer cars, and driverless cars don’t need to be parked nearly as often as regular cars.

But obviously, I can’t tell the future. So while these are things I believe will happen, I can imagine not everyone would agree. But I would just like to remind people of the time when personal computers and the internet started gaining traction, many people thought we’d move to paperless offices where everything would be handled digitally and online. However, due to the fact that now almost everyone can operate a PC and a printer, paper sales have actually risen.

Parking lots in the downtown core of Salem, Oregon.
These are parking lots in the downtown core of Salem, Oregon. Parking garages are solid red, parking lots outlined. Street parking is not even included. An incredible amount of space is used for parking. In some places, more so than others. Many towns and cities in North America are built for cars, which is why I think driverless cars will have the biggest impact there.
picture via breakfast on bikes

Urban design and planning for a self driving world

12 East 13th street in New York City, once a parking garage, now luxury apartment building.
12 East 13th street in New York City, once a parking garage, now luxury apartment building.

What does a world with a reduced need for cars and parking look like? In a perfect world, we’d stop building insanely large highways, downtown parking lots, and sprawling suburbs. That probably won’t happen, but hopefully we’ll make a step in the right direction.

I think surface parking lots, especially ones that are close to city centers, will be the first to go. If demand for parking drops, they will simply be less profitable. Parking garages, too, will (hopefully) undergo the same fate.

Perhaps developers will buy the land and build something more commercially viable. Or even take a parking garage and redevelop it, like one garage turned apartment building in New York.

This could also be a great opportunity for cities. Acquiring land, especially near downtowns, is often expensive and difficult. Buying a parking lot, arguably less so, since there is only one tenant/owner and no residents. Wouldn’t it be great if we could replace this:

Downtown Dallas, picture via Bing maps
Downtown Dallas, picture via Bing maps

With this?

Downtown Dallas, mediocre photoshop by me
Downtown Dallas, mediocre photoshop by me

And this still leaves the giant four-lane streets and a parking lot in the background in place. But doesn’t that look much nicer? Let’s build spaces for people, not cars. Not only would this transform a non-place into a place—no one goes to a parking lot to hang out or meet friends—it would be great for the ecosystem of a city. It would foster biodiversity and it would negate the urban heat island effect.

It could even be a solid investment on the part of the city. In “Solving the Real Estate Crisis with Parks”, Jared Green outlines the “budding “Red fields to Green fields” movement, which has been picked up by more than 10 major cities in the U.S. The basic idea is to transform toxic real estate into parks, elevating nearby property values, and turning a downward spiral of economic stagnation and disinvestment into a positive, self-reinforcing trend of new growth.”

Obviously not every parking garage can be turned into apartments. Most have very low ceiling heights and are much too deep for light to penetrate all the way. But their concrete skeletons still provide great opportunities. For instance: urban farms, using hydroponics, would do very well in them. They could be great spaces for entertainment: skate parks or paintball arenas would be great fits.

Perhaps we could also do something about the way we design streets. As David Yoon showed on the excellent Narrow Streets LA blog, many streets could use a good diet.

Ocean avenue + Santa Monica boulevard, Santa Monica
Ocean avenue + Santa Monica boulevard, Santa Monica

In New York City, the department of transportation actually put many roads on a diet. The results? Almost entirely positive. Outlined in a 2012 report called Measuring the Street, the results of their measures increase safety, revenue for local businesses, and overall satisfaction with places.

Street in New York City
Notice the absence of parking along the street.

The overall trend here is that automobile infrastructure can, and hopefully will, be repurposed into something that benefits people, not cars. The options to do this, are almost endless.

Driverless cars don’t solve every problem. They’re still cars. A city based around cars, with or without drivers, will never be the healthiest city. We should still strive to build walkable and cycleable cities. Good public transport is also important, because it still is (and most likely will be) much more efficient at moving large numbers of people. But this article is about the impact of driverless cars. I think that driverless cars provide many benefits over regular cars. They could reduce the number of cars, which would certainly help make cities healthier, even if the only thing they’ll do is reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. (But if we truly take advantage of them, they’ll also help in a myriad of other ways.)

Self driving cars could also have negative effects, for instance by leaving a large number of people without a job. Taxi drivers or valets, for instance. However, I think they’ll also create new kinds of jobs, as entrepreneurs take advantage of their unique features.

And the changes I described might not happen for a long time. Driverless cars will probably be quite expensive when they first appear on the scene, making them availably only to a select few. Luckily, Google is not the only company working on self driving technology. Competition will hopefully drive the price down. Plus, perhaps even regular cars might be turned into driverless cars, which could be a lot cheaper than buying a brand new self driving car.

Either way, I think they will have a large impact on the urban landscape. It can be a good one, we just have to recognize the opportunity and seize it!