The Potential Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles on Future U.S. Land Use

By Will Anderson

The following is written under the assumption that by the year 2050, the United States will have completely converted to the usage of level 5 autonomous vehicles (AVs). This means that all vehicles will be fully automated and capable of performing all driving functions under any conditions. Innovations such as camera sensors, Lidar, Radar, ultrasound, and computer vision will enable AVs to resolve technical problems and safety issues currently of concern. Consequently, the conversion to AVs throughout the U.S. will create both benefits and drawbacks related to land use planning, subsequently facilitating various economic scenarios. The primary land use benefits and concerns are outlined below, along with policy recommendations to address them.

Improved Efficiency of Parking Structure and Location

The conversion to level 5 AVs throughout the United States enables the improved efficiency of parking facilities in regards to location and design. The use of autonomous vehicles lessens the need for onsite parking due to built-in self-parking capabilities. Instead of requiring on-site parking, AVs, whether public or private, can drop off and pick-up users as needed. As a result, parking in urban areas can be consolidated outside of the city center where the land value is cheaper. Currently, the average comprehensive parking costs in the U.S. range from $3,300 to $5,600 per parking space in central business districts. On the other hand, the cost of parking falls to $680 to $2,400 in peripheral urban areas. Consequently, parking companies are incentivized to relocate parking structures to the urban periphery where there is still demand but costs are lower. Since parking will be consolidated in the urban peripheries, AVs enhance the viability of combined parking structures for people shopping, commuting, and engaging in leisure activities.

Automated parking systems also allow parking to be more space-efficient. Developers predict that through replacing ramps and aisles with lift shafts and reducing the size of parking spots, each parking deck will be able to hold 60% more parking. Combined with the consolidation of parking spaces in the urban peripheries, improved space-efficiency will significantly lower the amount of land dedicated to parking. Currently, there are 800 million surface parking spaces in US urban areas, equal to 1/3 of the United States’ combined downtown area. By cutting down on these parking spaces, the quality of the built environment will be improved by replacing urban parking structures with new land uses such as residential, commercial, and green spaces. The change of land uses will subsequently increase the density of core urban areas, which allows for enhanced economic activity.

Redistribution of Road Spaces

Similar to parking, the proliferation of AVs enables the redistribution of road spaces into more efficient uses. Due to AVs’ automation and safety capabilities, planners no longer need to account for human error in the design of roads and lanes. Assuming vehicles remain the same size, engineers believe lane size can be reduced by 20%. Moreover, since AVs have a significantly faster reaction time and can communicate with other vehicles, they are capable of traveling closer together than human-operated vehicles. This increases throughput of each lane, which reduces the demand for lane expansions and can potentially lead to fewer traffic lanes. Additionally, the use of medians as a method of providing a safety buffer between traffic lanes will no longer be needed, allowing roads to consolidate space.

Throughout the United States, road networks are a major land use of any city or suburban area, constituting 25% to 35% of the total land. Therefore, the redistribution of roadways can create a significant amount of space for bicycle and pedestrian facilities, active streetscapes, and greenspaces. As seen below in Figure 1, the use of AVs can transform American streetscapes into complete streets, allowing for a more diverse system of transportation for many different modes. The implementation of complete streets creates many long-term economic benefits for urban areas, including increased property values and opportunities for private investment along the roadways.

Figure 1: The Transformation to Complete Streets with AVs (Source: Florida DOT)
Greater Urban Sprawl

While the change to fully autonomous vehicles does create beneficial land-use impacts, AVs may also facilitate the continuation of urban sprawl. Planners have discovered that individuals believe their living environment and quality of life to be more important than living near where they work. Since AVs create travel that is less burdensome for riders, riders are incentivized to continue living in cheaper and greener areas located farther from the city center. A survey completed by the Transportation Institute at Texas A&M found that 80% of respondents want to remain within suburban areas while utilizing an AV. Furthermore, 20% of respondents expressed a desire to relocate farther away from the city center after obtaining an AV. As seen in this survey, the conversion to AVs increases an individual’s willingness to live farther away from work because the cost of traveling is worth living farther from the city center.

Due to this increased urban sprawl, residential and commercial land use patterns will continue to disperse and fragment. The construction of low-density single-family dwellings will spread throughout rural domains, which will also incentivize the creation of new commercial strip developments. As development grows farther away from urban cores, greater economic deterioration may occur in those areas. Moreover, the combination of commercial and residential relocation away from city centers creates urban decay as property values and public investments decline. Overall, AVs will make transportation easier for riders, resulting in increased urban sprawl and economic disinvestment in urban areas.

Policy Recommendations
Supporting the Potential Land Use Benefits

For AVs to create land use benefits, planners must ensure that any new policies or repurposing of public roads and parking spaces prioritize the needs of the whole community, rather than focusing strictly on serving vehicles. For public roads, city and regional planners can utilize federal grants to fund capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure such as encouraging the redistribution of road spaces and implementation of complete streets. In the case of Saint Paul, Minnesota, planners utilized a USDOT TIGER II grant to create a street design manual to be used to implement complete streets throughout the city. Furthermore, the use of public engagement strategies will educate public stakeholders about the benefits of reducing lane sizes, adding bike lanes, and increasing sidewalk size. Such demonstrations can help garner public support, enhancing the viability of new complete street policies.

Additionally, planners can incentivize public infill of abandoned parking facilities by implementing smart growth policies that reduce the amount of parking within urban areas. According to the EPA, a 50% reduction in parking would reduce parking capital costs by 25% and allow for 20% more residential units. As a result, developers can lower their capital costs and increase profitability. This increased profitability will incentivize more investment in public infill areas, increasing opportunities for inner-city development and economic revitalization.

Preventing Potential Land Use Drawbacks

Other than supporting the aforementioned benefits, planners must also implement policies that actively prevent the spread of urban sprawl and incentivize the densification of living spaces. Urban planner Craig Lewis states that sprawl will only continue if planners continue to support sprawl through focusing on free highway infrastructure and providing little access to affordable and attractive alternatives. By eliminating subsidies for highway infrastructure, planners can influence people to remain in their current suburbs or relocate within the city. Local and regional planning organizations can implement land-sharing plans or zoning laws to protect more rural areas from new development. Through these methods, planners can limit the potential for future urban sprawl and redirect movement back into the urban cores.


Within the next 30 years, land use plans will experience a significant change as the nation converts to the use of level 5 autonomous vehicles. In order to promote beneficial land use changes, planning organizations must implement policies that support the redistribution of public road space and incentivize the improved efficiency of parking infrastructure. Additionally, planners will need to develop policies that prevent the expansion of urban sprawl and redirect economic development to the city core. By implementing these measures, planners will promote centralization and rekindle economic growth throughout the nation’s urban landscape.

Will Anderson is a third-year undergraduate student with a major in Environmental Studies and minors in Urban Planning and Geographic Information Science. His academic interests include sustainability, land use planning, transportation planning, urban design, and architecture. I his free time, he enjoys playing tennis, mountain biking, and surfing.

Edited by Emma Vinella-Brusher

Featured Image courtesy of R&D World

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