How autonomous cars will impact city streets

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Lyft sees autonomous cars servicing the majority of rides within 5 years, driving a 3rd transportation revolution and massive changes to urban infrastructure.

What would our cities look like if the 700 million parking spaces in the country were no longer reserved for cars? That’s the terrestrial space of 100 San Franciscos dedicated to something other than storage. Lyft’s co-founder John Zimmer sees a future where vibrant communities reclaim the streets for people-oriented purposes, like front yards, small storefronts, parks, and wider sidewalks. While this might sound lovely, the vision seems to ignore one of the greatest crucibles of city living: traffic.

So, how will this happen?

How autonomous cars will impact city streets

Lyft forecasts autonomous cars will account for the majority of rides on its network in five years, with growth in three phases.

A number of socioeconomic trends indicate that individual car ownership is decelerating. Zimmer points out that in 1983, 92% of 20 to 24-year-olds and 46% of 16-year-olds had driver’s licenses, while in 2014 those proportions dropped to 77% and 24%. Research shows millennials prefer smartphones over cars, and we’ve written before about the annual $107 billion “Sprawl Tax” paid by folks commuting to and from work, soccer practice, and everywhere else. AAA calculates the annual O&M budget of car ownership to be $8,558, and as on-demand ridesharing prices fall through automation and tiered subscription-based pricing models, the economics of car ownership will lose out to the economics of ridesharing. And that’s before factoring in the economic costs associated to cars’ chronic under utilization, as they’re typically in use just 4% of the time!

Coincident to people owning fewer cars, the need for parking will drop, thereby paving the way for a redesign of the cities we’ve grown accustomed to driving through. Given that the American Society of Civil Engineers calculates we need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 on our D+ rated infrastructure, the funding needed to reconfigure our city streets is gaining widespread awareness.

This wouldn’t be the first time urban transportation systems have experienced such dramatic change: by the early 1800s, many urban centers were connected–for the first time–by canals and railways. Fast forward 100 years, and Henry Ford’s affordably mass-produced automobiles brought car ownership to the masses. Another 100 years later, and Ford is buying the crowd-sourced shuttle company Chariot.

By 2025, McKinsey expects 600 cities will account for nearly 65% of global GDP growth. If autonomous cars displace individual car ownership to the extent companies like Lyft and Chariot are envisioning, our city streets might look a lot more like they once did, like San Francisco’s market street in 1906:

On September 19, President Obama wrote about the balance of innovation and safety as autonomous vehicles hit the road. 35 thousand people died in car crashes last year, and 94% of those crashes involved human error or choice. The following day, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a 15 point safety guideline policy, including provisions whereby automakers must make vehicle performance assessments public so regulators and other companies can evaluate them. Ford characterized the guidelines as “thoughtful” and in support of further innovation.

About Millen Paschich

Millen began his career at Cambridge Associates, trained in finance at SMU, and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, business, and green chile burritos.

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