Top 16 Ways Autonomous Vehicles Will Change Land Development

By Mike Spack, PE, PTOE

Autonomous vehicles are coming – it’s a matter of when, not if.  I believe they’ll be ubiquitous within twenty years and humans driving will be legal on public streets in 30 to 40 years.  You can scan 8 Technological Changes that Will Revolutionize the Future of Transportation for a general primer of what’s on the horizon.  This post focuses on how autonomous vehicles will change development (and savvy developers will push the envelope with some of these items).

Here are the Top 16 Ways I think Autonomous Vehicles will change Land Development:

  1. Roads, driveways, parking stalls, and drive aisles can be narrower as autonomous vehicles will handle tighter spaces better than human drivers. It is also likely that vehicles themselves will get smaller (Smart Car and Mini Cooper size).
  2. Roundabouts and traffic circles will be more effective than signals and all-way stops as they are easier for autonomous vehicles to navigate. This is good news as there’s a lot of wasted time at signals and all way stop signs (I get frustrated every time I pull up to a red left turn arrow later at night and have to wait thirty seconds for the cycle to change).
  3. Buildings can be closer to the road. No need for huge setbacks.
  4. Excess public right-of-way can be turned back for infill development.
  5. Right-of-way standards should get narrower. Developers should ask for narrower right-of-way on future projects.  A transition could be easement in lieu of permanent right-of-way.
  6. Lower parking needed on site for new developments. Whether you use a robo taxi (think autonomous Uber) or your personal car drops you off at work and goes back home to park/charge.  We won’t need as many parking stalls on site.
  7. Many parking ramps and lots will have excess capacity that should be repurposed (this is already happening).
  8. Not as much attention to access spacing. The safety benefits of access spacing are due to counteracting human error.
  9. Pick-up/drop-off areas will become more important. They will be grander for aesthetics and longer to accommodate onsite queuing.
  10. More drive-throughs or pick-ups for autonomous vehicles to pick-up packages at retail outlets and make deliveries (more things like BiteSquad).
  11. Travel Demand Management Plans should be more important than traffic studies.
  12. Need electric plug-in stations.
  13. Robo taxis will want places to park between fares. Owners may need to be concerned about these vehicles staging in their parking lot.  Less driveways (and with gates?) will improve the property owner’s ability to control access and parking.
  14. Hertz, Avis, Ford, Uber, etc. may own a large portion of the passenger vehicle fleet. Vehicles will go to home bases on the fringe of the metro to park, charge, get maintenance, get cleaned, etc.
  15. Oil change, tire store, car washes, gas stations, etc. will disappear if there are large fleet operators that displaces personal vehicle ownership. Even if there is significant personal vehicle ownership, the car will drive itself to a giant (cheaper) hub to get serviced.  This would likely happen on the edge of the urban area where land is cheaper and congestion wouldn’t be a concern.
  16. Will robo-taxis shift transit the way buses killed fixed street cars? Transit Oriented Design around fixed transit may go away.  Aside – robo taxis could be much more equitable than fixed line LRT.

How to you see autonomous vehicles changing the face of land development? Post your comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “Top 16 Ways Autonomous Vehicles Will Change Land Development

  1. Excellent article, I agree with most of it, except I am doubtful the capacity gains of automation will outweigh the extra demand of vehicles entering and exiting the development at each end of the person trip instead of just parking. The potential savior is if the vehicle owner (Hertz, etc.) may also be able further encourage ride sharing since it should know when it makes sense for people.

  2. While much of transit can change to autonomous vehicles, we still need to focus on transit-oriented design for two reasons:
    1) The vehicles still require energy to drive. Even if the energy is coming from wind, solar, wave etc. the total amount of energy that can be produced is finite without damaging resources we don’t wish to damage. Moving 50 people in a clean energy bus takes much less energy than moving people in 50 clean energy cars.
    2) Autonomous vehicles will be available, both for rental and for ownership, first to the wealthiest people. There is a level of poverty that will keep some folks out of the market forever, and those people still need public transit. In addition, humans and profit motives being what they are, there are some neighborhoods that will not be serviced by autonomous vehicles for rentals or deliveries because the risk/profit ratio is insufficient. Transportation planning still needs goods and services in these areas.

    Also, a question: If people are choosing door-to-door travel in an autonomous taxi instead of taking the bus downtown, as a way of not dealing with the hassle of parking, will this raise the total number of cars in a shopping district sufficiently to create enormous traffic congestion even with the improved driving skills of the autonomous vehicle?

    • Hi Laura – valid points on the equity and energy issues. As far as adding to congestion – yes, it is quite possible that replacing a bus with 30-50 autonomous vehicles in a Central Business District during the peak hour could add significantly to congestion. That could be slightly mitigated if the autonomous vehicles are pods the size of a single seat Smart Car so we could fit four of them in the typical footprint of a single passenger vehicle. Mike

  3. Noteworthy and valuable points raised.
    I think in 10 and at most 20 years (say mid 2030’s) human’s won’t have licenses as humans won’t be allowed to drive.
    Strongly agree that Travel Demand Management and Travel Plans will supercede Traffic Impact Assessments.
    I’m afraid autonomous vehicles will only feed our seemingly growing, and in my opinion unsustainable, appetite for personal mobility (I go where I want to when I want to how I want to). The idea of empty autonomous vehicles travelling idle as parking may not be available within the CBD would surely add to congestion. The idea of empty autonomous vehicles travelling significant distances to “park” out of the CBD and wait surely doesn’t add to being energy efficient. While shared or robo taxi (I like the term) are an answer, I think higher density mixed use redevelopment, which enables active transport, and likely remote working or virtual meetings (eliminating need for travel) are sustainable ways forward.
    Furthermore I’m concerned about autonomous vehicles delivering lots of small disparate loads in response to online shopping. While feasible, do we really need so much stuff?