-Matt Segal, Vice President
Autonomous vehicles (AV) are already remaking the transportation landscape in America. At this point, few would be surprised to hear it. Deployment of AV technology has rapidly moved from theoretical to reality.
We’re already seeing self-driving Volvos and freight trucks in Arizona, test AVs from GM’s Cruise Automation roaming the streets in San Francisco and Uber’s self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh. Much digital ink has been spilled on Detroit’s resurgence and reimagining Motor City as a driverless hub for the balance of this century.
But transportation is a lot more than just how we get around. It’s also about how we live, where we cluster, co-locate, and congregate. Transportation defines where we work, or shop, and how we socialize. And while it’s still early, AV has the potential to reshape land use policy—that never-ending planning process of what-goes-where—in urban hubs across the country.
Several American cities are already planning.
“We’re already starting to tweak a little bit our land-use pattern and our regulation,” Terry Croad, Director of Planning for the City of Southfield, Mich., told Driven.
The AV working group for planners in Michigan believes that the hallmarks of today’s cityscape—think wide travel lanes and large parking lots—will be “rendered unnecessary where people use connected, driverless cars, or ride-sharing platforms.”
How will land use policy accommodate this shift? And what will we do with this new, hotly contested space?
Land Use Policy Impacts
San Francisco is the perfect place to start rethinking what land use looks like in our autonomous future. As a city accustomed to technological innovation and boasting a robust transit infrastructure—but beset by chronic affordability crisis—it could be ground zero for how AV can reshape land use for the next generation.
San Francisco launched the Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program at the end of 2016. It’s an initiative of SFMTA—the City’s transit authority—and the Planning Department. Designed to spur development that prioritizes modes of transportation other than the single-occupancy car, it encourages a variety of land use policy changes, primarily around parking minimums and vehicle usage.
Developers in San Francisco are encouraged to build less parking and are given the opportunity to intentionally “underpark” developments through a simple approval process. In the absence of parking, in addition to transit, shared AVs are typically suggested as a better medium- or long-range alternative.
Further, best practices studies like the Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism from National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recommend a variety of land use changes relating to transit-oriented development. That means not only eliminating or significantly reducing parking requirements, but also ramping up density and allowing increased building heights.
These ideas include dramatic changes to zoning codes and will require vigorous discussion with neighbors and communities.
Land use changes are always possible, but they must come from the ground up.
Addressing Affordable Housing
In 2016, San Francisco took on the Smart City Challenge. SFMTA submitted a vision of what an autonomous future might look like for land use and transportation. Federal grant funding of about $40 million was at stake.
The most significant land use policy element of San Francisco’s Smart City vision was the theory that AVs could help solve the city’s most immediate challenge: affordable housing.
The image on the left shows current conditions: a roadway with parked cars and a neighborhood dedicating space to personal vehicle parking. On the right is a SFTMA “Smart City” concept that replaces much of the traffic with AV and frees parking for affordable, transit-oriented housing. (Image credit: SFMTA)
The Smart City vision believes that by removing and reducing land used for personal vehicle parking and replacing it with a blend of transit and electric shared autonomous vehicles (SAV), new affordable housing can be built. One academic study published in 2015 estimated that parking needs would be reduced up to 90 percent in an urban SAV environment. Other scholarly estimates believe the reductions in commercial zones will be closer to 40 percent.
Additionally, lanes could be narrowed and rights-of-way could be constructed differently to accommodate AVs, transit, pedestrians, and cyclists, creating an affordable form of urbanism that aligns with the Smart City goals and creates a pilot project for what SAV-oriented land use might look like.
New Approaches to Planning and Zoning
On a much larger scale there’s SB 827, a bill authored by State Sen. Scott Wiener currently under consideration at the Capitol in Sacramento. It would enact some radical changes to encourage transit-oriented development. In essence, Sen. Wiener’s bill would preempt local zoning rules regarding height, density, and minimum parking requirements within a quarter or half-mile from transit. According to maps on TransitRichHousing.org, SB 827 would override local zoning rules in nearly every square inch of San Francisco.
Imagine the results: dense high-rises with limited parking and therefore, little need for personal vehicles. Into that void will be a mix of public transit, ride-hailing companies and SAV.
Effects of SB 827 on building height controls (Map credit: TransitRichHousing.org)
Create a Smoother Ride
Of course, land use changes—big or small—that include a reliance on transit and AV would create tremendous upheaval in the affected areas across California, especially San Francisco. Backers of these transformed-by-AV land use policies are going to need help building bridges with neighbors, transit riders, businesses, homeowners’ associations and landowners. Cities and even autonomous vehicle companies themselves would be facing a daunting public affairs challenge.
In other words, all stakeholders need to be engaged. As a trio of planners, professors and architects write at Planetizen:
In looking at the group conversations on the potential outcomes of an autonomous future, we believe that the focus needs to stay on the goals of the community. The deployment of these technologies needs to improve quality of life, ensure social equity, take care of all residents’ needs, and create opportunities for commerce. Planners, administrators, and elected officials cannot simply think about how to accommodate these technologies, as has been the case in many of the conversations about AV policy around the country. As innovation develops, individuals must plan for the communities (and places) that the public wants to see and leverage the technology to help attain those goals.
Listening, educating and advocating for these future-looking changes would be just the beginning. To capitalize on emerging AV technology for greener, more livable, and more affordable cities, advocates can’t simply rely on a top-down approach that relies on theories of urbanism and academic studies. The only way to pave this future—with the least upheaval—is a robust, bottom-up, grassroots campaign.