Automated Vehicles and the Next Great Transformation of the Built Environment

Over a century ago, the mass production and rising affordability of the automobile contributed to remarkable changes in transportation networks and the built environment.

The automobile improved personal mobility, promoted in part by unprecedented investments in road networks, highways, and a massive interstate system. This increased mobility brought major changes to the built environment, as transportation corridors came to be dominated by the needs of automobiles. At the site level, buildings were pushed away from roadways to make room for parking, resulting in a landscape of sterile and unsightly strip malls and surface lots. 

With our partners at the Florida Department of Transportation, a team of researchers in the Florida State University Department of Urban & Regional Planning investigated the potential impacts of Automated Vehicle (AV) technology on the built environment.

In a report titled Envisioning Florida’s Future: Transportation and Land Use in an Automated Vehicle World, we document how AVs may transform the built environment in the coming decades. We believe that this transformation will change our built environment in ways not seen since the rise of the automobile. In contrast to changes wrought by the automobile, though, we believe that AVs offer great opportunities for human-scaled placemaking and urbanism.

As documented in our study, we foresee adoption of AVs as having positive impacts on the built environment, including: 

  • Smaller and More Efficient ROWs: AVs will allow for narrower traffic lanes, a reduction in the number of lanes needed to accommodate traffic demand, and removal of center medians, offering opportunities for implementation of Complete Streets initiatives.
  • Relocating and Reducing Parking: AVs will bring massive changes to the location, form, and amount of parking, as vehicles can park themselves or circulate in the transportation network while awaiting their next rider. On-site surface parking lots will become unnecessary in many locations.
  • Signage and Signalization: As information can be transmitted to AVs wirelessly in real time, we foresee a future in which traffic signage ebbs away, yielding less visual clutter in our urban spaces.
  • Redevelopment Opportunities: A reduction in parking and narrowed right-of-ways will yield substantial redevelopment opportunities in areas dominated by surface parking and wide roadways, including downtowns.

An AV future is not without its challenges, however. We identified two key challenges that might fragment the built environment and hinder non-motorized travel. 

  • A Drop-off Revolution: AVs are expected to create demand for drop-off areas at most destinations. These drop-off areas will impact site-level design, affecting access management in the form, location, and design of curb cuts and drop-off/loading areas.
  • Fragmented Bike/Ped Networks: While AVs are expected to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, they may also make non-motorized travel more difficult by fragmenting networks and inhibiting bike/pedestrian travel.

The central contention of this report is that Automated Vehicles will be the catalyst for the next great transformation of the built environment. By providing a starting point for envisioning the impact of AVs on the built environment, this report offers guidance for ensuring that this remarkable opportunity for increased urbanism is grasped. It is imperative for planners to begin preparing for AVs today to address these challenges and to take advantage of the great opportunity to reshape our urban areas in ways that promote sustainable, people-centered environments. 

About the Authors

Tim Chapin is interim dean of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy; Lindsay Stevens, AICP, is planner-in-residence in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning; Jeremy Crute is the senior planner for the Florida Planning and Development Lab. 

Top image: Redeveloping on-street parking as drop-off areas: Drop-offs will be integral in freeing parking for reuse and redevelopment. Here they are seen redeveloped from on-street parking. Additional space from narrower ROWs may also be redeveloped into protected bike lanes or other bike/ped facilities.


June 15, 2016

By Timothy Chapin, Lindsay Stevens, AICP, Jeremy Crute