Self-driving cars will change cities: here's how

October 26, 2017

When the number of people reliant on self-driving cars reaches critical mass, cities will evolve to become either more densely-packed, like New York, or decentralized hubs of suburban sprawl, like Dallas. That’s according to MIT’s Center for Real Estate, which conducted a study with funding from Capital One in order to make predictions about shifting trends in the world of real estate.

According to the study, self-driving cars will encourage already-dense cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston to become even more dense, as self-driving ride-share services replace the need for car ownership. Fewer cars owned will result in reduced demand for parking lots and gas stations, both of which currently take up highly prized real estate that could eventually be used for wider sidewalks and more housing.

MORE: The 5 levels of self-driving cars explained

Parking in particular, the study says, currently accounts for up to 45 percent of the land in some cities, and some parking garages are already being built with an eye toward an eventual conversion to retail or residential space.

The effect is the polar opposite in cities that are already icons of sprawl, like Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix. Where commuters already drive great distances to go to work, the theory is that the tolerable level of commuting distance will increase if the time spent commuting can be filled with either rest or work. Compounding the effect, with fewer overall vehicles and less gridlocked traffic, the report predicts it will take less time to cover the same distance.

With more allowable commute time, and more distance covered in that time, suburbia is set to experience a considerable outgrowth. As a result, cities surrounded by under-developed land will experience a construction boom along their outer perimeters.

Of course, this assumes that the average worker won’t suddenly switch to some other emerging form of transportation. Statistically, speaking, they won’t. When it comes to getting to work on time, commuters overwhelmingly choose their own vehicle, part of a decades-long trend of refusing other forms of transportation in favor of private car ownership that seems unlikely to change with the advent of self-driving cars.

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