Will Self-Driving Cars be a Blessing or a Curse for our Cities?


All around us, the world is in "fast-forward", radical new technologies launch every month, and as our urban population densifies, the city buzz keeps getting louder. In this fast-paced lifestyle, we can forget to take a step back and consider how emerging technologies impact us on a bigger scale.

The reality is that technology is changing the way we interact with our cities as well as with each other. Companies like Uber, Bird, and Airbnb allow us to more fluidly engage with our city and communities. However, the excitement and pace of their innovation can skew our long-term objectives and veil their respective implications and externalities. It's important to consider how the adoption of these innovations will evolve and impact the existing physical infrastructure and socioeconomic fabric of our cities.

Self-driving cars long seemed like a distant reality, but with many semi-autonomous vehicles already to market, it's apparent that fully autonomous vehicles are quickly becoming viable. 

But how will self-driving cars impact our cities? With 2.5 Billion people projected to move into cities by 2050, what will the effect of self-driving cars be on congestion, safety, transportation, public space and human interaction?

According to experts, the short answer is one of two options - a heaven, or a nightmare.


It's evident that self-driving cars hold the potential to transform our day-to-day lives. They immensely increase our productivity as we re-purpose our time spent in cars; they can reduce traffic and congestion with fewer accidents and bottlenecks, and smaller cars can be used to transport just one or two people, which currently make up the majority of daily trips; and they can free up space in our city as idle vehicles can drive back home or to a location outside the city centre. 

In the utopia scenario, existing infrastructure can be adjusted and repurposed to accommodate a more human-centric environment. We could see wider sidewalks, more public space, bike lanes, parks and artwork across the city. Our streets can be transformed into a hub for creativity and human interaction as people live, work and play closely together.

Humans have always flocked to cities for their opportunity and proximity to amenities. At the surface, autonomous vehicles relate to mobility and transportation, but they actually hold the potential to transform the public realm and enhance our human-interaction to promote creativity, innovation, and engagement with our surrounding environment.


Many experts diverge from the strictly positive scenario by explaining that if autonomous vehicles are introduced into the status quo, economics will prevail and more vehicles will be on the road as the marginal cost of driving decreases. When mobility and transportation no longer 'cost time', vehicles can be in service 24/7. Sending a vehicle to pick up groceries or drop off your dry-cleaning becomes an obvious decision. The result could be significantly more congestion as the utilization of our vehicles increases and overloads the capacity of our existing infrastructure.

Robin Chase, the co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, notably pointed out in an interview with Edward Glaeser of Harvard Economics, the impact self-driving cars would have on infrastructure finance and the revenue streams that fund our transportation development.  Self-driving cars don't need to be parked near you, they don't need drivers, many of them are electric so they don't need fuel - each of these carry a financial impact. Our existing infrastructure funding model is reliant upon fuel taxes, parking, garages, fees and fines, and registrations. If we introduce autonomous vehicles, and/or shared autonomous vehicles, without adjusting this system, 60-80% of infrastructure funding could be at risk, Chase suggests.

As we anticipate the emergence of autonomous vehicles, many experts suggest that it's crucial for cities to be proactive with policy and pricing structures to avoid the nightmare scenario.

Lew Fulton, from UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies (ITP), is particularly concerned with zero-occupant vehicles or "zombie cars". Like mentioned above, privately owned autonomous vehicles would have no limitations for picking-up packages or running errands on their own. Moreover, instead of paying for parking, owners could have their vehicle aimlessly drive around while they stop for lunch or a meeting, etc.

Some States and municipalities around the world are already beginning to address these issues. In 2017, Massachusetts lawmakers proposed a tax for driverless vehicles of $0.025 per mile of zero-occupancy to help prevent congestion.

Ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft present another concern. Without the need for a driver, the cost of rides could become so low that there is no longer an incentive to car pool, once again increasing the number of cars on the road.

Ultimately experts believe a pricing system will be required to manage congestion in cities. Economist Matthew Turner from Brown University found in his 2011 paper "The Fundamentals of Road Congestion" that vehicle taxes are more effective at reducing travel time than alternatives such as investment in public transit.

Robin Chase of Zipcar emphasizes the importance of implementing such pricing structures proactively. She believes we have an opportunity to address these negative externalities while there are far fewer stakeholders and infrastructure limitations. For example, as vehicles shift to renewable energy sources, we will need a solution that replaces the lost funding from fuel taxes. We should also consider the size and shape of vehicles, and their burden on limited infrastructure, and create incentives to reduce vehicle footprints.

According to three studies done in Singapore, Lisbon and Australia, self-driving vehicle technology has the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on the road by 90%. Imagine a city with only 10% of the cars we see today, and the space that would open up for the public. As we anticipate the arrival of new technologies, it's important to step back and consider how to implement them into our cities so that they enhance our human experience rather than isolate us from each other and our environment.