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Driverless Cars Will Shrink Our Roads and Radically Reshape Urban Space

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One designer sees an era of "feral space" and DIY entrepreneurship taking over the urban landscape

It’s become a matter of when, not if, driverless cars are coming, meaning discussion about the developing technology has shifted towards car design, the economic impact of robot drivers, and the various ways taking our hands off the wheel will change our lives. But urban designer Kinder Baumgardner believes we’re skipping over a simple, yet impactful, aspect of how these new vehicles will remake our environment: the design, and use, of our roadways.

A principal at SWA Group, Baumgardner started thinking about the issue when his firm began doing traffic modeling for the renovation of the I-45 highway in its hometown, Houston. Tasked with designing roads relevant for 2035, the planner and his team began considering how rapid technological change will alter how are highways and freeways will be designed and used. Looking at current predictions that expect that millions of autonomous vehicles will sharing the roads with human drivers in just a few decades, he asked the Texas Department of Transportation if they should incorporate those scenarios into their planning. They were told they should, but that nobody else had quite figures out what to do about the next generation of automobiles. Baumgardner saw a question that needed answers.

"That’s when I started looking into this aspect of future urban design," he says. "This has become a laboratory experiment of sorts; where does Houston go, and how will it look, with these vehicles?"

With roads and parking spaces taking up so much of the manmade landscape, the advent of autonomous vehicles not only means we’ll be able to use them more efficiently, but that it’s likely some of the land and space we’ve paved over won’t be needed for vehicle traffic and storage. Baumgardner says a lot of people are thinking about how driverless vehicles will change jobs, insurance, and other aspects of everyday life; but over time, this technology will begin to reshape the environment, especially less-dense cities in the Sun Belt. How will a sudden influx of open land change how we look at and design our cities and highways? Curbed spoke to the urban planner about the concepts SWA came up with while anticipating this new paradigm of urban land use.

Our Freeways Will Shrink

"Freeways are where it starts. Most manufacturers have a car that can navigate a freeway in a semi-autonomous way. Now there are people on a road that don’t need to touch the steering wheel. There will be more and more of this happening quickly. In Texas, there are a lot of managed lanes. You can quickly imagine if you’re riding around in a robot, with a much higher safety threshold, you won’t want to be riding around the same lane with everyone else driving an analog car. You’ll start to demand your own lane and lower insurance lanes. You can also go faster and need less width for every lane; computer guidance and wireless communication means everything can be more compact. Efficiency means you can have more cars in less space. So 25 to 35 years from now, when most cars have converted, the 26-lane freeway we have now in Houston may only needs 12 lanes. When you slim down roads, you save a lot of money. Since infrastructure can cost a lot of money to maintain, we’re going to have a lot of empty asphalt."

Freeways and Suburban Parking Lots Will Go Wild

"The quick reaction is, let’s add parks, or create more development space. But Houston doesn’t need that much more development space. Some people will want develop over that former freeway right-of-way that's become useless. But most won’t. Also, think about the huge parking lots at big box stores. Technologies that allow for car sharing, or technology that lets your car park itself, means you won’t need as many parking space. That means parking lots may need to be half as big. That’s means we have free space near freeways, and near adjoining parking lots. Suddenly, when you put those together, that’s a lot of empty space. While people are figuring out what to do with this landscape, it's going to become feral. Development will be ad-hoc and grass roots. They’ll be turned into bike trails, that’s a no-brainer. But those are 10 feet wide. These empty spaces will be 200 feet wide."

Downtown Parking Lots Empty Out

"We also have thousands of parking spots downtown. We ran numbers on the growth projection for downtown Houston, and we found out there will suddenly be a significant number of surface parking lots nobody is going to use, and a surplus of parking garages being underutilized. Many of the parking conglomerates are already talking about divesting, since they believe their land won’t be worth much in the future. Again, it becomes a feral landscape. You’re in a bustling city such as Houston, and suddenly you have this Detroit-like landscape of empty parking spaces and surface lots. There’s all these empty lots. You may have squatters in an otherwise robust city. But I think they'll be entrepreneurial squatters. Now, if you want to open a restaurant in Houston, you need to provide a lot of parking. But that’ll change with driverless cars, since you can reduce the footprint of a parking lot. That entrepreneur who can’t afford to buy so much land suddenly doesn’t have that requirement. It may fuel more small businesses since it lowers the barrier to entry."

Think We’ll Have Lots More Public Parks? Not Necessarily

"The default idea is, let’s turn these spaces into parks. But parks departments don’t necessarily have the money for upkeep. And here in the Sun Belt, people don’t want to pay more taxes, especially to turn these places into parks. You'll probably find a resilient landscape approaches. People will be desgining their own DIY park."

Sprawl and Long Commutes Will Increase

"Look at the choices we make today. We won’t wake up tomorrow and make different choices. This technology will enable us to have more free time and take longer and longer commutes We’ll have people who want to live in the cities and those who want to live in the suburbs. Now I can live in the country and work in the city, and the transportation system is so much more efficient. I can experience the city, and more easily experience it by living further and further away. "

How Driverless Cars Can Reshape Our Cities [Curbed]

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Driverless Bus System Showcases Future of Public Transit [Curbed]