While some believe that driverless cars will create more traffic, they present a great opportunity to increase the density of our suburbs, as long as we’re prepared to take advantage of that opportunity.
The doom-and-gloom view of driverless cars imagines that every car that’s currently driven gets replaced by a driverless model. In this view, each family still owns two or three cars. Worse, because driving time can be used productively, long commutes become less burdensome and living in a suburban community far away from work becomes more acceptable. In this view of driverless cars, the amount of vehicle miles traveled increases exponentially, greatly increasing carbon emissions due to driving. This view has some truth to it. Driverless cars will increase driving, but it’s one way we can invest our current carbon budget to create a more sustainable future.
Driverless cars are not the only near-future development in transportation at work, a harmonious development is the increasing popularity of on-call taxi services like Lyft and Uber. Once driverless cars are permitted by the states and come to market, Lyft and Uber will end up replacing their current drivers with fleets of driverless cars. Since the driver is the most expensive part of their systems, they will have great incentive to employ fleets of driverless cars so they can bring down their operating costs.
Self-driving taxi will enable suburban residents to give up their cars without giving up the mobility and autonomy they currently enjoy. Once car ownership starts to decline in favor of self-driving taxis, all of the areas that are currently used for car storage can be repurposed to more productive uses. This will enable our suburban neighborhoods to become more dense and walkable, and eventually will lead to a declining need for car trips in the first place.
The biggest benefit for suburban neighborhoods is that garages will be able to be converted into livable space. A standard three car garage can be converted into a very livable granny flat. These types of accessory dwelling units could conceivably double the number of people living in a suburban neighborhood. Increasing the density of these neighborhoods in such a way will provide an adequate number of people to support local, walkable retail. Unfortunately, many cities have ordinances prohibiting the conversion of garages into livable space, because they don’t want the cars they expect to be in those garages on the street creating a parking problem. As driverless taxis become viable, cities will need to rapidly amend these ordinances if we are to take advantage of the opportunity to densify our suburban neighborhoods. The sooner these ordinances are amended, the more quickly we can transition our neighborhoods to be walkable and sustainable.
There are some other small ways removing car storage from our residential neighborhoods will improve walkability. Currently, many residential streets are designed to accommodate on-street parking which wouldn’t be needed with driverless taxis. Reclaiming this space that’s currently dedicated to parking will enable for wider sidewalks, separated bike lanes, or landscaped parkways that can make a neighborhood more walkable. Additionally, the driveway curb cuts for each house would be able to go away. If you’ve ever pushed a stroller down a residential street, you know how annoying curb cuts can be, and leveling out the walking surface by removing them will enhance a neighborhood’s walkability.
In addition to adding density to our residential neighborhoods, cities will be able to take advantage of the land currently wasted on parking in retail centers. This can take the form of additional retail space, if there is a demand for it; additional homes, creating tent-pole density adjacent to retail; or a combination of both. In a world full of driverless cars, all retail centers will require is a small area for pickup and drop off, similar to a valet or taxi stand.
As the densities of both our suburban residential and retail neighborhoods increases,not only will they be walkable, but they will begin to be able to support transit in a reasonably efficient manner. Once suburban neighborhoods are walkable and have transit, the need for cars, even driverless taxis, will be reduced. Driverless taxis aren’t a cure for all the ills of the suburbs, many other changes to our land use policies and patterns of development still need to occur and can occur without the further development of near-future technology. We should spend the majority of our efforts changing what we can today, but we also need to be thinking of the technology of tomorrow and working to set up an understanding of how it can create a more sustainable future so when that technology materializes we can make that sustainable future a reality.