A few years ago, self-driving cars seemed like something out of The Jetsons. Now, they’re here (at least in prototype). Their proliferation promises easier commutes and fewer accidents. But, that’s just the start.
Autonomous cars could forever change how cities like Austin look – and how they operate – in some major ways.
As self-driving cars proliferate. The need for parking as we know it could end, slashing millions from city transportation budgets. More than $36 million could be lost in Austin alone, according to a report from Governing Magazine, and that’s not counting other revenue sources like speeding tickets.
“The cities that are thinking about this are expecting their enforcement to go to almost zero, which is a huge, huge deal,” says Phil Lasley, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Robert Spillar, director of Austin’s Transportation Department, says he understands that revenue disruption could be coming down the road, but he sees it a long way off. He estimates it’ll likely be 20 or 30 years before the city sees any major impact.
Spillar says the problem is kind of like what planners faced as vehicles became more fuel efficient and gas tax revenue dropped off. That led to charging for use of the roads themselves through tolls, for example, which he says could be an option in the future.
“Certainly, some type of user fee is one option," he says. "I think other states are looking at a mileage-based fee, so we’ve heard about odometer fees at the federal government level to replace the gas tax."
But, he says, it’s all very speculative. In the long run, the drop in parking revenue might be one of the lesser impacts of self-driving cars. After all, they could upend our entire urban landscape.
“People may be able to afford living farther away and might tolerate longer commutes, if they want to,” Lasley says.
If that happens in Austin, which already suffers from massive urban sprawl, the city could kiss more of its tax base goodbye.
“You’ll see gas stations go away, and car dealerships go away, and repair shops go away,” Lasley says. “And what you’ll see is some of that prime real estate will be developed for other things.”
Probably one of the most dramatic examples of property that may become fully obsolete goes back to parking – specifically, multilevel garages.
Spillar says it can take up to 60 years to see a full return on investment from a large parking project. So, even if it takes 40 years for autonomous vehicles to take over the streets, they’re already complicating projects that break ground today.
“That’s really where, right now, developers and city investors and bankers ought to start thinking about ‘Wow, do we need all that parking?’” he says.
And, Lasely says, developers are already considering that prospect.
“Instead of having sloped parking garages, they’ll have what’s called flat floor parking garages, where you can actually put a skin on the building and remove these garages in the future and turn it into office space.”
What happens to underground garages? He says they could become gyms or data-storage centers. But the bottom line is that a lot more land could open up relatively quickly, which may not be good for city planning.
Let’s say you’re at a bar, but you’re not drinking because you need to drive home. Self-driving vehicles could make that concern a thing of the past.
“There’s actually a lot [of research] on that,” says Lasley. “Could bars stay open longer? Could people stay out later? Are they going to be spending more money on things like that?”
In fact, investors have begun speculating on self-driving technology’s “adjacencies” – the commodities people may consume more often in a driverless world.
The Road Ahead
Ultimately, self-driving cars could revolutionize energy use and improve air quality (depending on how you generate your electricity). They could relieve traffic congestion or increase it. There are so many potential impacts – and so many uncertainties – that it can seem pointless to try to unwind the possibilities.
But it’s probably time to start.
“A lot of cities aren’t thinking about this right now,” Lasley says. “That’s frightening, but it’s not surprising.”