Project
Autonomous Urban Mobility Initative

Autonomous driving (AD) and other automation technologies (AT) are rapidly emerging, with more than $80 billion of investment to date. The first-order effects of AD include improved safety, reduced congestion, on-demand mobility, and cheaper and faster transport. The second and third order effects of AD and AT, however, will likely prove to be far more transformative to our ways of living, creating fundamental changes to society and the physical form of cities. These changes include radical new land-supply equilibriums, widespread flattening of the housing cost curve, and increased access to mobility by economically disadvantaged communities, the elderly, and those with reduced physical mobility. One of the most dramatic changes that will happen with AD is a rapid expansion of commuting sheds, which may shatter the longstanding rule of Marchetti’s Wall—a maximum 60-minute commute pattern. AD predictions already show how a modest 25% increase in average driving speed could lead to a 56% increase in accessible land.

With these oncoming changes the relative importance of suburban development will only increase as metropolitan regions continue to spread outward. Meanwhile, denser urban cores are predicted to shrink as lower cost peripheral land is unlocked and developed into affordable and environmentally performative neighborhoods and high-tech business nodes — further decentralizing regional economies and driving.

For decades, metro regions around the world and especially in the U.S. have become more congested with private automobiles. Federal, state, and local governments no longer have the funds to massively subsidize or expand mass transit services, and a limited supply of real estate and connective right-of-ways make adding new trunk lines extremely difficult in dense areas. The image of mobility in urban areas increasingly is one of more density, congestion, parking shortfalls, and overburdened mass transit systems.

AD and AT have the potential to solve these big problems by fostering a new spatial economic landscape. Removing human drivers from the mobility equation allows for a radical rethinking of how we use highly inefficient paved surfaces of cities, including parking lots, streets, driveways, garages, refueling stations, and many more. Recent research has demonstrated that a parking lot for autonomously parked vehicles could accommodate the same number of vehicles in 62% less space. In addition, studies routinely document oversupply of parking in cities in the range of 25-60%. Parking lots at suburban big box retail malls are especially underutilized. With the advent of various forms of home delivery (such as autonomous drones), the 10 billion sq. ft. of retail space in the US, and the attached parking lots, can be dramatically redesigned.

Once paved surfaces are redistributed, adaptive reuse of highly accessible, centrally located land resources could improve many critical environmental systems within metros, especially the ability to capture and treat stormwater and prevent urban flooding in the age of climate change. New live-work-play developments can be strategically inserted in places where paving is removed to catalyze economic growth throughout regions, increasing local revenue and jobs closer to home. An entirely new spatial economy will cluster around the newly created land resources and the reduced costs to access them.

The Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism is launching the Autonomous Urban Mobility Initiative to explore the impact of autonomous driving and technologies on metropolitan areas. Currently research is exploring the next generation of autonomous suburbs, with this initiative looking to further explore:

+ What new daily patterns of family interaction and time budget management might evolve in an AD future, and how can these changes be managed to improve overall quality of life?
+ What unanticipated or unintended consequences might emerge as we transition toward a fully AD future? How can solutions be designed to address these externalities?
+ What development strategies are needed to best integrate Optimal Suburban AD Units within existing landscapes to preserve and ideally enhance ecological systems?
+ What new indices and metrics are needed to measure and track the unique social, economic, and environmental impact of AD over time, especially to ensure equitable distribution of AD benefits to residents and cities?
+ What new terminology and concepts do policy makers and developers need to define and explain these benefits?
+ How can innovative urban transport and economic modeling be used to best simulate and communicate the impact of AD?

Please contact sashams@mit.edu for more information.

Spring 2017