How driverless cars may change city design

Technology’s effects on the taxi cab industry continue to grab attention. Now the bigger question is how driverless cars will change transportation and the design of our cities.

It’s been a year since South Carolina passed a law permitting ride-booking companies to operate in the state. Such companies partner with local drivers to provide rides to customers who hail them from a smartphone app. Drivers use their own cars to pick up riders.

But changes to how people reach their destinations appear inevitable. For instance, Uber has invested in autonomous vehicle research and indicated that consumers can expect a driverless fleet by 2030.

The technology already exists. Last year, a modified Audi completed a 3,400-mile cross-country trip in which it drove itself 99 percent of the time. Some major car manufacturers already sell vehicles with features such as automated braking, self-parking and lane departure warning. What doesn’t exist is the transportation infrastructure that would allow autonomous vehicles to be functional and safe.

Self-driving cars will impact society in a number of ways, whether as an individually owned vehicle or one that riders only summon as needed. The vehicles will expand mobility for people who cannot drive a car, including children and the elderly. For now, it’s difficult to predict what effects the future automotive changes will have on traffic congestion and harmful vehicle emissions.

One thing that seems certain is that self-driving cars will change the way public spaces are planned and designed, according to Wayne Shuler, director of planning and zoning for the City of West Columbia.

Because autonomous vehicles are more precise, roads wouldn’t need to be as wide - they could be redesigned with smaller, narrower lanes, Shuler said. Intersections would have to be redesigned for pedestrian safety. Bike lanes and pedestrian walkways might have to be separated from the roads to avoid conflicts with autonomous vehicles.

The street signs we have become accustomed to - visual cues geared toward pedestrians - would have to be changed, Shuler said. Traffic signals may have to communicate wirelessly with vehicles, requiring cities to increase and maintain their wireless bandwidth capacity.

An autonomous vehicle likely will be programmed to drop off riders at a designated spot and then drive itself to an off-site parking location when not in use. This means vast parking lots at shopping centers and on-street parking meters could become a thing of the past, replaced by large drop-off lanes. Parking garages would no longer need to accommodate drivers, so there would be no need for stairways or elevators, Shuler said. Developments could be designed with more green space in the city center, with parking provided at remote locations.

The move toward autonomous vehicles could reduce the numbers of privately-owned vehicles, as people make the shift. A growing number of millennials, especially those in urban centers, don’t want the expense or burden of an automobile, said Ernie Boughman, president of the SC Chapter of the American Planning Association.

In the meantime, there would be a transition period as human-operated and autonomous vehicles use roads at the same time, Shuler said. That means municipal codes will need to address the issues of potentially chaotic drop-off zones, by determining where they can be located and the queuing length of cars, for instance.

As autonomous vehicles become more commonplace over the next few decades, experts say municipalities would be wise to start paying attention to the technology and how to update regulations or pay for infrastructure changes that could be on the horizon.

"There are a lot of benefits and consequences to autonomous vehicles that we can’t even see yet," Boughman added.