Worse Gridlock, More Inequality? 3 Ways Self-Driving Cars Could Change Cities

If we don’t plan for them, that is.


Recently, I heard a friend lament the fact that self-driving cars still haven’t arrived to end his dreaded commute. It’s true: It sometimes feels like autonomous cars have been just over the horizon forever. But for cities, which move at a more geological pace, self-driving cars are approaching at the speed of light, spurring a race to prepare.


Take the Regional Plan Association, a nearly 100-year-old group that leads planning initiatives for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area (think airports, bridges, highways, and more). In its entire existence, the association has released its “regional plan,” a huge roadmap for how the area will develop in the coming decades, just three times: in the 1920s, the ’60s, and the ’90s. For the past few years, the group has been hard at work on a much-anticipated fourth plan that will address everything from the housing shortage to sea level rise.

The plan is due out in November. But last week, the group decided to publish a special report on autonomous vehicles early, citing a need for cites to “start preparing now.” By 2045 up to 90% of cars could be autonomous, they explain, and cities should be planning for the changes they’ll bring–both positive and negative–now.

It’s Probably Going To Be A Mess At First

The association’s report is a frank look at how we can expect self-driving cars to change cities and suburbs, and while there are potentially plenty of benefits, some scenarios ain’t pretty.

For instance, one rosy dream of AVs imagines a world where we can sleep or work on our commutes. “[This] could allow users to sleep in bed as they commute or sit at their desk and participate in virtual meetings,” the association writes (much to the chagrin, perhaps, of anyone who finds their work leaking into other parts of their life). At the same time, they caution that there may be unexpected consequences, like skyrocketing congestion, because people are willing to pay a premium for their own rolling bedroom. “Empty personal autonomous vehicles are particularly concerning because there is no time cost for the driver and he or she would also gain the time that would traditionally be spent parking,” they add.

Ridership of public transit could plummet, and the number of cars on the road could boom:


Gridlock in the future could consist of a never ending stream of AVs and manually operated vehicles flowing through the city, with more streets with levels of congestion like Midtown or major arterials (Queens Boulevard or Fordham Road), something that most city dwellers would consider a nightmare scenario.

Cities could be caught off guard by a new traffic crisis, and be forced to step in to regulate how many AVs they’ll allow on the road. They could also regulate the cost of these luxury rides to help pay for ride access in lower-income areas. Either way, the point is clear: Cities will need to be prepared to step in as this tech radically shifts the carefully planned “calculus” of urban transit.

[Source Photo: Ildo Frazao/iStock]

Geo-Fencing: A Walker’s Dream

Today, closing off a city street to cars takes extraordinary expense, planning, and human power, including police to set up roadblocks and direct traffic. One benefit of a software-controlled fleet of vehicles? They can be much more easily controlled.

Geo-fencing–or the process of creating digital boundaries for a technology to follow–would let the city restrict certain blocks or whole neighborhoods at the drop of a hat. “For example, New York City might choose to make Broadway from 59th Street to Union Square fully car-free from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” the report’s authors imagine.

Take Barcelona, which has instituted a program called “Superblocks” where a group of nine or so city blocks is closed off to cars entirely, creating walker-friendly oases in the bustling city. New York has experimented with similar but much smaller changes, like creating pedestrian-only zones, but testing these ideas is very complex given the density and traffic in the city. With geo-fencing, a planner could easily cordon a few blocks off, simply by tweaking the AV system’s software:

In the future, dozens of streets could be taken off-line for cars as new open space for people is extended throughout the city. Sidewalks could be widened, two-way bike paths installed, and remaining traffic lanes prioritized for public transit and the efficient movement of goods. Some sections of the city will also have shared streets that will no longer have curbs, allowing all users to comingle in a slow-speed environment, made possible by geo-fencing technology that will limit movement of vehicles into public spaces, based on the time of day.

[Source Photo: Ildo Frazao/iStock]

Two Big Challenges

If nearly 100% of a city travels in cars operated by private companies, those companies will have an unprecedented amount of data about citizens. Cities, the association says, need to consider how they’ll develop data standards and negotiate with those private companies about how that data is protected:


Because so much data will be available, it is very likely that information collected from autonomous vehicles will be coveted by hackers. Security systems will need to be strengthened significantly. If cities are relying on automated systems for the majority of their transportation services in the future, the potential for a hacker to shut down the system could be devastating. Even worse, hostile nations or terrorist organizations could cause damage by rigging crash prevention systems to fail.

And what about equality? AVs could make cities even less equal, the same way public transit has, in some cities, served as a tool of segregation. For instance, the planning of bus lines has been used to subtly segregate some American cities in decades past, cordoning off low-income neighborhoods from affluent suburbs. In the same way, AVs could cater to the rich, leaving lower-income neighborhoods under-serviced. The report urges cities to start thinking about this issue now and offers some ideas: Rides to lower-income or underserved communities could be subsidized. Old parking lots and garages, made unnecessary, could be developed as affordable housing. New legislation could prevent discrimination from AV companies.

We have a chance to learn from the last time a transportation revolution changed cities–the 1950s and ’60s, when widespread car ownership ushered in a new era of highways that necessitated the razing of whole neighborhoods. Will planners, citizens, and politicians have the foresight to prevent similar effects when autonomy arrives?

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.