3 Big Ways Self-Driving Cars Might Change Cities

An expert weighs in on the radical improvements autonomous cars could bring to our communities.

By Kimberly Ancin on October 2, 2015

Self-driving cars are on their way, and news stories about them usually focus on the improved safety and fewer traffic snarls the companies working on them hope that they'll provide to consumers. But another interesting aspect of the coming self-driving car revolution is the way it will shape and change the ecosystem of U.S. cities. We asked Jordan Perch, an analyst at DMV.com and consumer automotive expert, to share three major ways autonomous cars could impact city life.

More Bike Lanes and Pedestrian Space

"Self-driving cars will certainly have an impact on how city streets are designed, since driverless cars will be more precise than conventional cars, so they will be able to travel in lanes that are much narrower than the ones cities have now," says Perch. "Narrower lanes will free up some extra space that could be used for purposes other than driving. That additional space could be used to build more bike lanes or to expand sidewalks. This suggests that driverless cars could help encourage bicycle commuting in many cities."

Fewer Parking Lots and More Green Space

"With driverless cars being able to park themselves, it's safe to say that parking lots will also be transformed," Perch points out. "Parking spots will not have to be as wide as they are today, since autonomous vehicles will be able to enter narrower spaces without trouble. What's more, the need for large parking lots and multi-story parking structures will be reduced, because driverless cars will encourage car sharing, resulting in far fewer individually-owned cars. This means that there will be fewer cars that need to be parked, so cities will not have to build as many parking lots as they do today."

In fact, the idea that so many parking lots and garages might no longer be needed has led some to speculate that they could be turned into public parks and green spaces.

The Ripple Effect of Fewer Accidents

The improved safety that autonomous car makers are promising will have a larger effect on community services such as police and other first responders, health care, and even the economy. "Driverless cars will help reduce motor vehicle accidents substantially, and pedestrians and cyclists can expect to be safer once they become commonplace," Perch says. "Autonomous vehicles are considered a much safer alternative to human-driven cars, because they eliminate the single most common cause of car accidents – human error. This means that driverless cars have the potential to improve public health, by reducing car accidents and potentially preventing thousands of traffic fatalities and serious injuries. On top of that, they could have a great economic impact, as well, by reducing the costs associated with car accidents, which, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are nearly $900 billion a year."

Next time you're out and about in your city, you might want to take note of all the space built to accommodate our soon-to-be-antiquated human-driven vehicles, and imagine what could be done with that space. Will it be bike lanes, wide pedestrian strolling areas, green spaces or all of the above? And what will your city management do with the resources it saves with fewer accidents? Self-driving cars are poised not just to make our commutes potentially safer and more convenient, but could also make a major difference in the quality of life in our communities.

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