Guest Op-Ed: How Will Current Land Use Patterns Impact the Deployment of Autonomous Vehicles?

There has been a considerable amount of talk about the “utopian” and “dystopian” visions of the social impacts of deploying AVs. The utopian vision envisions that AVs will be primarily shared, reducing congestion and opening up land that was previously devoted to parking and other car infrastructure for other uses. But the dystopian vision envisions people primarily owning these vehicles and sending them, without human occupants, on errands all day long, jamming our streets, and creating even more congestion.

While there has been a lot of talk about how AVs might impact how we utilize land, there has been less discussion about the opposite phenomena: how current land use patterns will impact AVs deployment.

Current land use patterns will indeed impact how AVs are used and deployed and what kind of societal results we can expect from the technology. Land use patterns – which are relatively fixed and take a considerable amount of time to change – already impact what mode of transportation we use and how often we use it. For example, one cannot easily demolish wide tracts of housing or commercial areas and re-zone them into a perfect utopia designed for AVs (moreover, this would neither be politically feasible or socially optimal).

Land use patterns designed for the personal car may perpetuate a future in which AVs are owned rather than shared.

Land Use Patterns Impact How People Choose to Move

Land use decisions impact how people decide to move around. Smart growth strategies, for example, intentionally combine some density with walkable development to encourage people to adopt more diverse modes of transportation, including walking.

On the other hand, widely dispersed suburban environments often require people to own and drive a car in order to reach their desired destinations. As anyone who has spent time in suburban south Florida would attest, commercial and residential development is dispersed in such a way that one really needs to have a car to get around conveniently.

Of course, suburban development does not necessarily require driving a car everywhere. Intelligently spaced commercial and other amenities (say, every half mile) may make it possible to walk, bike or take transit to a commercial area that provides nearly all of one’s needs, saving a car trip.

Land Use Patterns Are Relatively Fixed

Another aspect of this issue is that land use patterns are relatively fixed: areas zoned for residential, single family home neighborhoods, large malls, and low rise development are relatively static – creating a landscape conducive to long driving trips and which would take a long time to change (if society were so inclined). The creation of an environment in which most destinations require car trips would be difficult to undo.

Imagine, for example, altering a three square mile suburban area of a city where most errands require a significant trip in a car. The area contains a sprawling mall surrounded by acres of parking and mostly single family and multi-unit residential units in the surrounding area.

This type of arrangement encourages and perpetuates personally owned single occupancy vehicles since (1) parking spots are readily available; (2) the distances to get places are significant; and (3) the hassle of sharing vehicles (because of the distance and time needed to pick up other passengers) may not be worth the costs.

To counter these dynamics and encourage more sharing in an world with AVs, one might need to:

  1. change the zoning to allow different or additional development that naturally reduces the average length and frequency of car trips;
  2. complete construction of new development to make it easier to utilize shared vehicles;
  3. re-imagine and re-purpose curb areas to permit more pick up and drop off zones; and
  4. re-purpose current parking areas to either commercial or residential development to allow increased density and limit the appeal of single occupancy vehicle.

There are certainly other tools to consider as well. All of this would require a considerable amount of effort, coordination and political will. And given the time involved to implement such changes, any beneficial impacts on transportation modes may take a considerable amount of time to realize.

How Will Current Land Use Patterns Impact the Deployment of AVs?

The challenge for rosy predictions about how AVs might benefit society is that they are subject to the physical environment in which they operate. Landscapes designed for personal ownership of vehicles will generally remain conducive to personal ownership, even in an era of AVs.

Right now, land use in the United States is geared, in most places, towards the use of single-family vehicles. Besides our biggest urban centers, most of our land use consists of spread out development, which encourages the use of a personal car. Streets, parking lots, residential areas, and commercial development have now matured with this dynamic in place.

The appearance of AVs will not by itself change this dynamic. The same two-mile trip to the grocery store will still be a two-mile trip in an AV. And the fact that a vehicle is autonomous may or may not encourage people to share such rides in an “on demand” manner.

As discussed elsewhere, individuals may want to continue owning vehicles for storage and convenience needs for trips to the grocery and elsewhere. Sprawling development discourages sharing because it requires vehicles to drive out of their way to pick up additional passengers and also disperses likely destinations.

The more spread out the development, the higher the cost and inconvenience for fleet managers to service these areas. As a result, shared fleets of AVs may not be competitive in such areas, leading providers to withhold or discontinue such service. And because even urban dwellers may often need to visit suburban areas, the viability of shared vehicles in urban areas may be limited as well.

In this way, current land use development may perpetuate the ownership model and constrain the potential benefits from AVs.

Automation Alone Won’t Be Enough

Land use patterns impact how people travel and can be difficult and lengthy to undue. In this sense, land use may constrain the benefits some hope to achieve from AVs.

Automation alone will not be enough to derive the full potential benefits of AVs without also undertaking a significant examination of land use – quite the opposite. Changes in land use may create an environment in which the benefits of AVs can be fully realized. If we want more shared use of vehicles, we need to create livable, walkable communities where car trips are relatively short and can be easily shared among individuals who are relatively close to each other and on the same general route.

Therefore, we should look at ways that current land use planning can be examined to encourage different forms of transportation, including walking and biking. AVs may help encourage sharing, but we cannot rely on the technology alone. Rather, we have to do the hard work of examining all the elements that impact transportation decisions if we want to drive change in a positive direction. This includes looking at land use as well as transportation costs, safety, comfort and reliability factors that impact what forms of transportation individuals choose to rely on. Only by utilizing all the tools in our toolbelt can we drive the future forward in a thoughtful and beneficial manner.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.




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