Self-driving cars are getting a lot of publicity–and for good reason.
Some think that driverless cars will completely reshape our cityscapes. With fewer traffic accidents due to human error, autonomous vehicles would change the car repair and insurance industries. Ride-hailing companies like Uber and car-share companies like Zipcar could be transformed. One of the biggest changes, however, will be that cities won’t need nearly as many parking facilities. While there will still be a place for private car ownership, many major cities will end up having surplus parking space that can be turned into parks or even repurposed for new commercial uses.
But no matter how transformative they are, autonomous cars are unlikely to replace mass transit. One big reason is because mass transit is simply more efficient in terms of density. In cities, where space is both limited and expensive, a bus or train that can carry dozens or even hundreds of passengers will always be more efficient in terms of space and cost. And because more and more people are moving to cities, the real innovation that may come out of autonomous vehicle technology might not be the cars, but self-driving buses. After all, the US road system was built for cars, and it works just as well for buses.
Some experts fear that self driving cars will promote sprawl. Long, arduous commutes incentivize living near urban centers, but if commuting by car became much easier, the allure of city life might give way to the appeal of lower costs and bigger homes in suburbs. Many projections estimate that self driving cars could roll out as soon as the early 2020s, and since we’ve seen the effects of sprawl on health and economic mobility, it’s a big concern that planners will need to deal with soon.