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Automated Vehicles vs The Future: Part 2 – Development

Jun 22, 2018

Part two of three, written by Dylan Glosecki on how automated vehicles (AVs) will likely shape our communities. Part 1 of this think piece explored the anticipated disruption to conventional automobile use. In Part 2, Dylan explores the development and planning implications of such a disruption.


The following is a summary of talking points collected at the Urbanism Next Conference in Portland, OR on March 6, 2018 and in subsequent conversations with my colleagues at VIA. While an autonomous vehicle future appears imminent, I humbly acknowledge the unpredictable alternate paths our future could take.

Suburban sprawl in Las Vegas, NV (photo courtesy USDA NRCS)

There are numerous hypothetical pros and cons of autonomous vehicles (AVs). As an avid urbanist and proponent for connected communities, it’s exciting to explore the potential impacts of AVs on city planning and public transit. What does an AV future mean for our cities, our communities, and the way we navigate to, from and through them?

Increased Sprawl

If AVs act as mobile offices, the long commute is no longer a hindrance. If one can spend  two, three, four hours a day working remotely while they commute to their office, meetings and appointments, living far away from these destinations is less of an inconvenience. This ability could provide much needed housing cost relief in our urban centers, as housing further away from urban centers is developed and becomes more desirable as commutes become more productive. On the other hand, facilitating longer distance commutes will encourage sprawl, and may trigger another 1950’s style, low-density development boom.

Alternatives to this vision exist. As cities experience urban renewal and higher demand  for the various benefits and conveniences of an urban lifestyle, costs increase as affordability decreases. This decrease presents many challenges, community displacement being prime among them. But as citizens leave expensive urban areas seeking more affordability, they carry with them the desire for walkable, urban lifestyles. Such demand may eventually lead to the development of denser, more connected, walkable hubs in suburban areas that provide more affordable housing options. If we redevelop our suburbs densely enough, the suburban population can be better linked to city center jobs and services with a combination of on-demand mobility services and central transit spines utilizing both public transit and TNCs (Transportation Networking Companies), like Uber, that have the potential to replace or drastically reduce reliance on single occupancy vehicles.

Transit Oriented Development (TOD)

On-demand ‘micro transit’ could act as a collector in less dense areas, funneling citizens to and from high capacity transit lines and supporting TOD nodes in suburban and exurban areas. However, on-demand mobility options also hamper the ability to leverage policy to increase density around planned transit nodes. When pick up/drop off areas are no longer limited to transit stops, land use planning is separated from transit planning.

On one hand, a land use/mobility planning separation presents challenges that can enable the dispersed, environmentally-detrimental development patterns we see today. On the other, the low-infrastructure demand of on-demand micro transit does establish this type of transit as a relatively low-cost strategy for increasing mobility options in existing low-density residential areas, thereby allowing reduced automobile dependence in suburban communities (See Bainbridge Island Ride description below). If AVs were used for on-demand micro-transit fleets, operation costs could be even further reduced.

As road capacity increases and roads are subsequently jammed with additional vehicles, AVs will likely promote the transition of park and rides into “kiss and rides”. An AV will drop off passengers at local transit stations and immediately depart to pick up the next passenger, either in a nearby neighborhood or arriving via mass transit to the kiss and ride stop (providing “last mile” transport for arrivals). The “kiss and ride” model requires a sizable increase in drop off/pick up area, but eliminates the need for parking and allows for a drastic overall reduction in land area required compared to a traditional park and ride, freeing up underutilized land for housing, retail, office, etc.

Mass Transit

The impact of AVs on mass transit use will vary by location and will be influenced by factors such as city size and development patterns. Though general consensus predicts a 10-40% reduction in mass transit use, many strategies exist to both mitigate AV’s effect on transit ridership and facilitate increased public transit use. The basic conflict between the two primary groups that will offer AVs in the future – public transit and TNCs – is that public transit provides a mobility service for the common good, while TNCs sell miles on the “market”. The market offers no equitable incentive without regulatory mandates, thus placing the burden for providing equitable mobility solely on public transit, unless policymakers put plans in place to level out the playing field with incentives and regulation.

In the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ fall 2017 edition of Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, the group offers the following vision for public mobility services:

Mass transit should serve as the backbone of the transportation network, while autonomous vehicles, biking and walking complement the core parts of the network and provide service where mass transit is not as efficient. Public agencies and private companies could work in tandem to actively manage the network, with volume, mode and speed thresholds controlled through real-time pricing and curbside demand management.

A few real-world examples show what we are likely to experience increasingly as AVs become more prevalent:

  1. Integration of AVs into transit fleets. A great example of the efficiency of automation is Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain system. Fully automated and driverless, SkyTrain allows adjustments to train frequency to go as low as two minutes during peak periods. Such efficiency may be much harder to achieve with non-automated systems.
  2. Unions, fearing job loss, may lobby against AV integration in mass transit. But AVs don’t necessarily mean fewer jobs, rather different jobs that will require retraining. For instance, truck drivers would not be required to take freight across country as automation could manage long stretches of freeway, but the beginning and end of trips that require navigation through complicated and highly trafficked city streets and industrial areas would still require human navigation for quite some time.
  3. Microtransit adds smaller vehicles to the transit fleet and provides on-demand services. Bainbridge Island provides the BI Bus that runs on a set route, but will accommodate pick-ups anywhere on the island when a request is made two hours ahead of time. While the two hour notice is a start, the request window will need to shrink drastically to increase ridership.

In summary, AVs are expected to broaden development and planning options as mobility choices and efficiency rise. However, achieving the desired levels of mobility efficiency will require holistic and forward-thinking planning approaches that guide AV adoption and utility. If AV technology is not adequately leveraged for public service, and if its utilization is largely driven by the private sector, we risk increasing suburban sprawl and undermining development and planning efforts that aim to make communities more accessible and human-scaled. Part 3 will conclude this think-piece series by exploring high-level policy options/implications of the inevitable AV disruption.