Planning for the Autonomous Vehicle Revolution

Autonomous vehicles are in the news every day and they are coming to towns across the nation, but there is a general lack of readiness for this new technology and its implications on energy, human behavior, and development patterns. There is a need for additional education and research into the costs and benefits of this new field, and planners must be involved in this process.

APA’s Green Communities Center is actively pursuing research and educational opportunities related to autonomous and connected vehicles so that we can assist our members in developing an understanding of the associated needs and opportunities.

Autonomous vehicles will greatly influence how people get around in the coming decades.

Aside from some of the more obvious predicted impacts to the automobile industry such as the continued growth of car-sharing, and on-demand taxi services like Uber and Lyft, autonomous vehicles (AVs) also stand to disrupt the norms of both transportation and land use planning. According to a new report from the Florida State University Department of Urban & Regional Planning titled Envisioning Florida’s Future: Transportation and Land Use in an Automated Vehicle World, AVs may exert as great an influence on the built environment as the mass production of the automobile did in the early to middle 20th century.

Parking minimums, street design, rights of way, development demand, signage and signalization, building siting and design, access management, and their accompanying norms and standards have the potential to change dramatically over the next 40-50 years. The report, sponsored by the Florida Department of Transportation, outlines how AVs are predicted to impact the built environment, and what the implications are for planners.

Developed in part during facilitated table discussions at the Florida Automated Vehicles Summit, the researchers tasked stakeholders (including planners, engineers, public officials, and professionals from AV-affiliated industries) with envisioning how certain aspects of the built environment are likely to change under conditions of wide autonomous vehicle acceptance. Given the realities of the time needed for an auto fleet to turn over, the study assumes 50 percent of all vehicles will be autonomous by 2040, and 100 percent by 2060.

Table participants were cast as road users and asked to imagine impacts to the built environment under the 2040 and 2060 scenarios in four archetypal urban settings: the Downtown, an Office / Medical / University Complex, a Transit-Oriented Development, and an Urban Arterial.

The findings were far-reaching, predicting six significant impacts to the future urban environment:

  1. The researchers concluded that AVs will reshape future road rights-of-way. Autonomous vehicles are likely to be smaller than existing passenger vehicles, permitting narrower lanes, likely won’t require medians, and due to wireless communication between AVs, will be capable of traveling much closer to one another. By accommodating the same or more volume in less space, newly available road can be reapportioned to other road users like pedestrians and cyclists.
  2. The researchers propose a coming revolution in access management, with increasing demand for drop off and pick up points close to the destination. While drop off and pick up areas are currently common at bus stations, train stations, and airports, they may soon be essential at any number of retail and commercial sites of the future. The commensurate demand for on-site parking is likely to plunge, calling into question the future necessity of parking minimums. On-street parking too can be repurposed to accommodate the demand growth for drop-off and pick up space.
  3. Signage and signalization infrastructure is predicted to change considerably, especially over the long term. AVs capable of communicating with other AVs (Vehicle to Vehicle) or with local infrastructure (Vehicle to Infrastructure) will revolutionize the look and feel of streets and roads. Automated and connected vehicles will lead to a decline in street signs, lane striping, and traffic signals. Intersections themselves may be greatly impacted, as the need for AVs to stop may be removed entirely from the equation.
  4. Autonomous vehicles have a number of potential benefits and drawbacks for pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users. The reapportioning of rights-of-way may allow for expanded sidewalks and more dedicated bike lanes. The decluttering of the streetscape due to signal removal may allow for better wayfinding, but also longer waits at intersections dominated by free-flowing vehicles. The growth of drop-off and pick-up zones may fragment the streetscape, complicating travel for pedestrians and cyclists. Alternatively, the redevelopment of former parking lots may lead to more complete streets, enhancing streetscapes currently dominated by surface parking.
  5. The location, demand, and form of parking is predicted to change tremendously. Structured parking on the urban fringe can accommodate AVs not currently in use. Surface parking within cities may be free to redevelop into retail and residences. Unused street parking can be reapportioned as bike lanes, expanded sidewalks, or AV pick-up and drop off zones. Space-efficient AVs will be able to park next to each other without the need for opening doors, allowing for lots to accommodate a higher density of parking in more limited space.  Vehicle to infrastructure communication will allow unused spaces to be filled quickly and more efficiently, reducing the need for “peak day” parking minimums.
  6. The redevelopment of former parking lots has the potential to transform existing urban centers. Site design itself will be impacted by the advent of autonomous vehicles, allowing for buildings to more regularly front streets rather than parking lots, and allow for the consolidation of entry/exit roads and turning lanes.

The report outlines general guidance for planners as they begin to grapple with the opportunities and challenges of autonomous vehicles. This includes: rethinking standard lane width, level-of-service, and long range demand models, the need for dedicated AV lanes during the transitional period, the design considerations necessary in accommodating drop-off zones, preparing for the development potential of existing parking lots, reconsidering the need for parking minimums, and the possible future demand for drop-off space.

Further, proactive thinking in supporting bike and pedestrian infrastructure as streets are re-oriented to include AVs will be vital.

The researchers conclude with a call for a thoughtful and equitable approach to planning for autonomous vehicles that considers all road users, and the tremendous need for more research, planning, and preparation.

About the Author

Joseph DeAngelis is an APA research associate.

Top image: Honda Autonomous Driven car demonstration at the Honda R&D Center Tochigi, Japan.

June 15, 2016

By Joseph DeAngelis, AICP