Autonomous Cars, Uber, and Future Urban Form

Broadacre City : Frank Lloyd Wright Wright: The car allows urban scale to scale horizontally

Broadacre City by Frank Lloyd Wright Wright: The car allows the city to decentralize and scale horizontally

The advent of autonomous cars will undoubtedly have an impact on the shape and organization of cities almost as great as the introduction of the car itself.  The ascendancy of the car and the single-occupancy vehicle as the primary transportation system created new forms of urban space.  Replacing traditional means of moving though cities, like walking, streetcars, and subways, the car emerged at the same time as the advent of modern urbanism. It was a deadly combination that created new vast scales of urban space that slowly eroded the traditional city, creating spaces more sympathetic to automobiles than human habitation.

The role of technology, especially transportation technology, in the way we build and live in cities is undeniable.  It can exist in pragmatic service to a city’s residents, and to can point to new visions of our settlement patterns. But technology can just as easily be misunderstood as a fetishized panacea, creating false hopes, simplistic and hyperbolized schemes, and real problems.  The car is such an example. Although tamed like so many docile ants in the renderings of Le Corbusier, or celebrated as a vehicle (pun intended) of democratic futurism by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, the car has, on the whole, been an instrument of the city’s destruction.

City of Three Million, plan by Le Corbusier. Cars are tamed through urban infrastructure with an unrealistically benign effect

City of Three Million, plan by Le Corbusier. Cars are tamed through urban infrastructure with an unrealistically benign effect

Many cities around the world have been looking for ways to tame the car, either through legislation, such as congestion tariff’s in the center city (as in London), or closing down traffic lanes (like in New York City).  The rebalancing of multi-modal streets that don’t prioritize just cars, but also bikes and pedestrians, has been the goal of surprisingly successful Complete Streets movement.  The introduction of ‘shared parking’ districts, and the relaxing of parking requirements in general, have helped reduce the amount of pavement dedicated to unused, stationary cars.

Of course the social costs of the car-oriented sprawl landscape have been well documented, and millennials, who suffered many years of carpooling as kids, are currently a primary force in the resurgence of urban living, relying on waking, transit, and, of course, Uber.

The car permitted a new kind of low-density urban form, let’s call it sprawl, that engulfed vast quantities of previously undeveloped open and agricultural space.  This form of urbanism, mostly associated with the suburb, was also introduced into existing traditional cities, typically with disastrous consequences. Large swaths of traditional cities were opened up to multi-lane roadways, parking garages, and vast expanses of pavement for parking.

Parking at new retail development in Hudson Valley, NY

Parking at new retail development in Hudson Valley, NY

Vast areas of pavement devoted to parking in American cities

Vast areas of pavement devoted to parking in American cities




Could autonomous cars alter this and create opportunities for reimagining our cities for the future? It certainly seems a reasonable expectation especially combine with car sharing services like Uber and Lyft. While the simple substitution of driven cars with driverless cars would have less of an impact on cities, it’s the combination of ride-sharing apps with autonomous cars that has the greatest possible effects on how we move through cities.

The primary change would be a vast decrease in the amount of land devoted to parking. No longer would residents have to park their car while shopping, working, etc. The amount of cars per person would drop drastically with shared car services, with some estimating there would be 1/5 the number of cars on the streets as we currently have. (MIT Citylab)

The severe parking requirements, which created so many buildings isolated in seas of pavement, or pushed back commercial buildings hundreds of feet from the streets, would be scaled back.  More important than the parking of temporarily unused cars would be the emphasis on drop-off/ pick-up places, which themselves could be a kind of urban space, a threshold between the urban and architectural. Even without Uber, a privately owned self-driving car might be imagined to drop off it’s passenger/owner, then drive itself to a kind of vehicular holding area until needed again.

What is unknown is how the Uber-autonomous car fleet would effect transit. While such cars would undoubtedly reduce parking demand, there still would be a great number of vehicles on the street, still demanding wide lanes of pavement that cut through our urban areas. The Uber autonomous vehicle, while dramatically altering the urban landscape, will not be a solution to urban mobility by itself unless it is part of a larger balance with transit and other forms of movement. Bicycles and walking still seem the best option for sustainable local circulation- ironically the most old-fashioned and least technological of any futuristic scenario of urban mobility.

For urbanists interested in the form of the city, the reuse of the spaces currently devoted to parking lots and structures seems like the most challenging, yet also promising, problem.  If all those acres of pavement were to suddenly become developable parcels, this would mean a transformation of many of our downtowns, suburbs, and perhaps (optimistically) a return to streets as public spaces and not just vehicular thoroughfares.

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