Self-Driving Cars Could Transform Entire Towns and Their Roads

Urban sprawl could spread and additional housing could replace parking areas.

Daimler

As car enthusiasts, we tend to focus on the immediate effects of self-driving cars. Specifically, prying the steering wheel from our cold, dead hands. But according to a report by MIT’s Center for Real Estate, not having to drive ourselves places will have profound effects on our society as a whole that spread far beyond the automobile itself, Bloomberg reports.

MIT's Real Trends report focuses broadly on the future of real estate in the United States. On the surface, this seems to have nothing to do with cars, self-driving or otherwise. But the study predicts that when you remove driving and car ownership from the equation, the fundamental nature of cities and their suburbs will change. 

Today's infrastructure for car ownership, such as parking garages, gas stations, and car dealers, would be torn down and replaced by additional housing. In a way, cities may return to a structure that's similar to what it was like before automobiles, like how older Northeastern cities such as New York and Boston were before cars took over. Even today, Boston is often referred to as "The Walking City." 

The other major effect of self-driving cars would be kind of the opposite, adding urban sprawl to the suburbs. Sitting in traffic or riding commuter rails for hours a day is no fun, but self-driving cars would combine the autonomy and organization of the train with the independence and freedom of a car. Traffic would be managed better, and people could continue working or entertaining themselves while in transit rather than focus on the road. Longer commutes would be no big deal if they were productive and enjoyable, so urban areas would expand to become large collections of suburbs, similar to newer western cities such as Dallas or Phoenix.

The MIT report predicts some other effects that aren't immediately obvious. Autonomous cars wouldn't violate traffic laws, practically eliminating the revenue towns and cities generate from tickets and fines. The 25 biggest U.S. cities generated a combined $5 billion last year from parking tickets, vehicle registrations, and other related revenue, according to data compiled by Governing magazine. This would be drastically reduced if people no longer own or drive their own cars.

Other potential effects would be improved mobility for the elderly and disabled. Not having to drive themselves would improve their independence, allowing more people to stay at home rather than nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. The renovation industry may see a boost as people remodel their homes for the long haul, particularly if construction costs decrease as a result of autonomous trucking.

This is just one vision of the future. What it will actually be like is anyone's guess, and dependent on advances in technology and the evolution of current laws and regulations. But it's fun to think about and ask, "What if?"