31 Oct 17

How autonomous cars will change cities – for better and for worse

Autonomous cars will not only change the way we drive, they will also significantly change the way our cities work and even what they look like, a new study by MIT suggests.

Titled 'Real Trends – The Future of Real Estate in the United States' and developed by the Center for Real Estate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the study examines the impact of several trends on urban development, including demographic change, the rise of the Internet of Things, and innovation in transport and logistics – chief among which is autonomous driving.

“By 2037”

Or will be. As the study points out, autonomous driving is still far from where it wants to be, even if high-end vehicles are equipped with more and more technology that integrates aspects of autonomous driving into everyday practice.

There are still a number of safety concerns to be overcome when it comes to driverless driving, but “there is no doubt that fully-autonomous vehicles represent the future of urban transport”. The study predicts that autonomous driving will be “the norm by 2037”.


The arrival of driverless cars will dramatically reduce the volume of urban traffic to such an extent that it will change the way cities work, the study predicts. The MIT study cites research by the University of Texas, which found that a single autonomous vehicle operating as a taxi or as a shared car could replace up to nine individually operated vehicles.

Such a reduction in traffic volume will have immediate effects on congestion and traffic flow, but it will also have ripple effects on the urban environment itself. Take for example a city like Washington DC: nearly 45% of the built environment in the city centre is composed of car parks. A large share of these car parks would become available for redevelopment.

Calm and greenery

As the study indicates, architects are already planning how exactly to redevelop these soon-to-be available tracts of urban real estate. One option would be to redevelop formerly busy thoroughfares into major pedestrian avenues or bike paths, lined with trees and plants.

This would have a positive impact on pollution and temperature levels, as demonstrated by the transformation of an urban expressway in the South Korean capital of Seoul (pictured). In 2005, it was redeveloped as a 6-km long pedestrian-only promenade, which provided the city centre with a much-needed oasis of calm and greenery.


As for multistorey car parks and unbuilt parking lots, these could be redeveloped into residential or commercial properties. In the U.S., some construction companies – anticipating a drop in car traffic – are already desiging and building car parks that can be easily converted into office space.

But it would be wrong to think that the advent of autonomous driving would have only positive consequences. The study says that it could very well lead to a new wave of what it calls 'peri-urbanisation' – i.e. a further metastasis of cities from their urban cores into their suburban extensions.

Public transport

Autonomous driving would make commuting less frustrating; commuters could conceivably work, relax or even sleep during their trips to and from work. This could mean employees will become increasingly willing to make long journeys to and from work, and thus prefer to find a home on the (cheaper) outskirts of urban conglomerations.

So, while autonomous driving may open up large tracts of inner-city real estate to create higher-density residential and commercial areas, the advent of this new technology may also increase the spillover of megacities into their as yet unbuilt surroundings. To avoid the latter development, the study points out that offering a wide range of public transport options between the core and the edges of metropolitan areas can act as a prevention: “The acceleration of urban sprawl is a natural development for areas underserved by public transport, in which people are forced to rely on individual cars to meet their transport needs”.

Authored by: Frank Jacobs