Any good research out there on the sprawl-inducing potential of automated vehicles?
This is a very good question, and there is a solid variety of both research and opinion out there on the subject.
A report from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, concludes that autonomous vehicles may reduce public transit travel demand, leading to reduced service, which will stimulate more sprawled development patterns that reduce transport options and increase total vehicle travel.
Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and a member of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, agrees that sprawl will occur because people will be able to spend time more productively in their cars, sleeping, exercising, etc. That could allow them to live farther from their offices.
And that time will be much shorter as well. A study by the University of Texas estimates that 90% penetration of self-driving cars in America would be equivalent to a doubling of road capacity and would cut delays by 60% on motorways and 15% on suburban roads.
However, a study from the Conference Board of Canada concludes that driverless cars will both increase sprawl and urban intensification (densification) at the same time. There is a strong likelihood that people will
be willing to tolerate longer commutes if they are able to be productive
in the vehicle, especially if it means that they can buy cheaper housing
as result of the longer commute. But by eliminating the need for a large inventory of parking spots that we have in our dense urban areas, AVs create the potential for more dense urban environments.
Dan Fagnant, a researcher from the University of Utah, agrees precisely, saying, “With cars in constant use, much less parking space would be needed. By liberating space wasted on parking, autonomous vehicles could allow more people to live in city centres; but they would also make it easier for workers to live farther out. If you can sleep on the journey a longer commute becomes feasible, notes Mr Fagnant, who foresees a “simultaneous densification of cities, and expansion of the exurbs”. So: more density in city centers with more, err, "sprawly" sprawl that reaches out further and further, but is less dense than today's sprawl.
Harvard University researchers concur with the notion that self-driving cars might paradoxically increase urbanism, again citing the "parking lot effect" They say that some city planners expect that the cost of homes will fall as more space will become available in cities. If parking on city streets is reduced and other vehicles on roadways become smaller, homes and offices will take up that space. Today’s big-box stores and shopping malls require immense areas for parking, but without those needs, they could move further into cities.
Allison Arieff, who writes about architecture and design for The New York Times raises the issue of social equity: how the young and the poor who cannot afford cars now probably won't be able to afford a self-driving one either, even if they are shared rather than owned. One could draw the conclusion from this that we could move back into a scenario where the poor move back into the inner cities, close to jobs, and the rich live farther and farther away, reversing recent New Urbanist trends.
Of course, one thing to consider is that even if autonomous vehicles become available, that doesn't mean everyone will want to drive them, so the near-term impacts may be minimal. Half of the people surveyed in a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center said they wouldn’t. College graduates (59 percent) were more likely to say they would. People with a high school diploma or less (62 percent) were inclined to pass up the chance. A slight majority of city and suburban residents said they would, but only 36 percent of people in rural areas thought they’d try it.
So, in short: Multiple studies point to increased sprawl as an inevitable by-product of driverless cars, but many also believe that driverless cars will reduce the need for space wasted on parking, allowing much more affordable density for city-dwellers. Perhaps we will simply see the same patterns we see now: Where those who cherish the peace of the country will still live there, and those who cherish the excitement of the city will still live there -- it is just that everyone will be happier about it.
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