Illustration credit: H.B Vestal, “Everywoman’s Magazine”, Jan 1956

Autonomous vehicles are coming.  No one agrees on when they will be in widespread use, but everyone agrees that they are coming soon in some form.  Just like smart phones, ride-hailing services, social media, and other innovations of the past decade, autonomous vehicles will almost certainly dramatically change the way we live, work, and interact with each other.  They will also have major implications for zoning ordinances, land use policies, and infrastructure across the country that state and local governments, commercial property owners, developers, and society in general should start discussing sooner rather than later.

At the federal level, the fashioning of a regulatory framework to allow for the development and widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is well under way.  Just last month, the House passed H.R. 3388, a bill with bipartisan support called the SELF DRIVE (Safely Ensuring Lives Future Development and Research In Vehicle Evolution) Act.  The bill’s primary objective is to provide for expanding autonomous vehicle testing on public roads, an obvious and crucial next step in refining the technology.  The Senate has also introduced companion legislation, S. 1887, the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act.

These proposals come on the heels of multiple state-enacted laws and guidelines that have so far regulated the budding industry.  Under the SELF DRIVE legislation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would maintain its regulatory role in establishing standards and regulations for how vehicles are designed and perform, while the states would continue to oversee vehicle registration, licensing, and insurance requirements as they already do for regular vehicles.  The legislation gives the NHTSA two years to come up with safety rules and one year to assess the necessary performance standards.  It also permits a ramp up in the number of exemptions of certain standards that the NHTSA may grant for autonomous test vehicles, up to 100,000 in three years.  Such exemptions are necessary in the event that, for example, a manufacturer may want to design a vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals because the occupants are not expected to take control at any point.

As these proposals continue to develop at the state and federal levels, local governments need to consider how they can adjust their own zoning and land use policies in response to the coming of autonomous vehicles.  Those places that are successful in doing so will likely be the winners in adapting to autonomous vehicles and thereby maintaining a vibrant economy and high quality of life.  This is particularly true if the widespread assumption, informed by current urban trends in the age of ride-hailing services, is proved correct:  that most autonomous vehicles in cities will be owned jointly or operated in large fleets.

Local governments should focus their discussions on the following:

  1. Mandatory Parking – Most local zoning ordinances still mandate that a minimum amount of parking be provided for new projects.  However, autonomous vehicles could greatly increase the number of people who are simply dropped off at a building and therefore have no need for parking.  Future minimum parking requirements should have flexibility built into them—if they are not eliminated altogether—to avoid construction of additional parking that may eventually be largely obsolete.
  2. Conversion of Parking Lots and Structures – Zoning ordinances and land use policies must be ready to allow for the potential conversion of existing parking lots and structures in urban areas to other uses.  In many places, architects are already designing parking garages that can easily be converted to apartments, offices, or other uses in the future.  Conventional garages are more difficult to repurpose, but innovative designers have demonstrated the possibilities of giving new life to obsolete garages by transforming them into micro-housing unit communities, elevated parks, luxury homes, antique markets, apartments, and offices, among others.  Surface parking lots obviously allow for much easier conversion to other uses, such as urban park space.
  3. Curbside Management – With the use of autonomous vehicles, effective curbside management (i.e., designating where parking, loading, etc., are permitted) will only become more important in terms of providing adequate dropoff locations.  If done correctly, dropoff locations and pedestrian-only zones can be created that will both reduce vehicular congestion and create a better environment for pedestrians.
  4. Planning for Autonomous Vehicle Service Areas – Even if all of these autonomous vehicles are not parking in urban areas very often, they will definitely require service from time to time.  Jurisdictions should consider where to locate autonomous vehicle service areas, whether on the edge of town where real estate prices are lower or incorporated into mixed-use developments.  Existing service stations and garages in urban areas may also be natural places to locate autonomous service areas as well.
  5. Road Recapture – If the more aggressive predictions come true, the need for vehicular travel lanes could dramatically shrink over time with autonomous vehicles.  This will present opportunities for converting such lanes to bicycle or pedestrian ways or even more urban park space.  It will also be interesting to see how, as autonomous technology develops and improves, roadway geometry might change in terms of decreased lane width, site distance requirements, and road curvature.  All of these changes could provide even more opportunities for adapting portions of our roads to other uses.

This list is, of course, by no means exhaustive.  Many other issues should no doubt be added, and the relative significance of each item is uncertain.  No matter how quickly the impact of autonomous vehicles on our urban areas will be felt, the time to start contemplating and discussing these issues is now.