A recent policy brief by the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California, Davis, was even more clear. The convergence of three new technologies—automation, electrification, and shared mobility—has the potential to create a whole new wave of automation-induced sprawl without proper planning and regulation.
"This will completely change us as a society," says Shannon McDonald, an architect, assistant professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and an expert in future mobility planning. "I think it'll have the same transformational change as the introduction of the automobile."
With no real timeline for how or when this technology will roll out, there has been little in the way of planned regulatory response. The federal government released suggested guidance on autonomous vehicles (AVs) last fall, a series of national test sites have begun to look at safety and urban-design issues (as local government officials jockey for the spotlight), and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released a set of policy suggestions in response to the potential impacts of AV.
And, as Elliot noted, there are currently 263 million non-autonomous cars on the road, and roughly 2 billion parking spaces in the United States. While tests, such as the recently announced Waymo trials with families in Phoenix, may have already started, it will take a long time for AV tech to dominate our roadways.
But that hasn't stopped many planning and development experts from thinking about the ways this technology will reshape planning, cities, and, eventually, real estate. As local governments deal with important transportation and land-use issues, the results of these decisions will potentially inflate or depress real estate values and change the way developers operate. Even expected shifts in roadway and traffic design that will be made in the next few decades suggest big shifts will come to future development.
"Streets are 25 to 35 percent of a city's land area... [the] most valuable asset in many ways," says Zabe Bent, a principal at transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard and a speaker at the APA conference. "We need to really think about how we manage those spaces for the public good and for reducing congestion."
The huge potential in parking space
Elliott, the zoning consultant, sees the steady rollout of autonomous-vehicle technology as a catalyst speeding up existing trends. While many technologists may predict a new wave of specialized infrastructure, he believes the future is in the smart repurposing of existing spaces and structures, and policies and zoning codes that support those types of projects.
There's a tendency to think of new solutions, Elliot says, when the reality is that smart reuse will be key for urban development. Planners will face this shift by using traditional tools—zoning, street design, and traffic regulation—in new ways, which will, in turn, impact how developers operate.
He sees two small but significant changes affecting urban real estate development in the age of driverless cars. A reduced need for parking may be the most significant. High-value property in urban areas needs to account for mandatory parking allowances, forcing developers to factor the cost of parking spaces into construction costs and rent.
Elliot gave the example of a 300-square-foot micro-unit studio in a dense downtown area that, due to code requirements, needs two parking spots, meaning the vehicles may end up with more space (324 square feet) than the tenant.
But with the potential for driverless tech to reduce private car ownership, developers won't need to worry about parking spaces, and can make more money by avoiding wasting space on cars. Elliot sees debates around parking allowances becoming much more important, since it's a potential tool to create more mixed-use, transit-oriented development and accelerate trends favoring downtown living (and new suburb development that mimics a similar density and walkability).
Some in the real estate world are already planning for this future. In Los Angeles, the mega-developer AvalonBay Communities Inc. has begun work on an apartment development in the city's arts district with parking garages specifically designed to be convertible, to take advantage of a time in the near future when extra spaces won't be needed.
Brentwood, a mixed-use development in Nashville, will also be built with a smaller parking-related footprint, and the city of Somerville, Massachusetts is collaborating with Audi's Urban Future Initiative and the Federal Realty Investment Trust on a garage design that could cut needed parking space by 62 percent. Audi estimates the design could save $100 million once it's finished.
"Developers will start using the promise of AV and driverless cars to realize net savings," says Elliott. "It's not necessarily cheaper, but more space can be used for commercial or residential purposes."
Real estate firms will negotiate for fewer parking spaces, perhaps even setting up their own agreements with autonomous bus or transportation-network companies, such as Uber or Lyft, to provide tenants with transportation access in exchange for gaining more usable, high-value urban space. Though banks and financial institutions will need to get on board with the concept, this would offer a new way to add density, and could help spur more mixed-use, walkable cities.
The question marks around AVs cut both ways; some, including Elliott, believe AVs could also be tools for sprawl, since commutes will suddenly be more enjoyable and "not everyone can live in funky lofts."
Just as driverless car technology will speed up a change in the way cities think about parking allowances, it'll also accelerate a shift in how we design roadways, specifically pick-up and drop-off zones for vehicles. The growth in services such as Lyft and Uber are beginning to make this issue clear, but as autonomous vehicles eventually hit the streets, the way buildings and developments welcome and adapt to traffic flow will become increasingly important.
"Our streets aren't designed for door-to-door service," says McDonald.
New land-use rules and traffic codes will need to be designed to properly funnel AV traffic and prevent what could be a series of bottlenecks on the road, especially during rush hours, as people get to and from work and school.