Planning for AVs: The Time Is Now

There is widespread agreement that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are the next big thing in transportation.

In a 2016 study for the Florida Department of Transportation, a Florida State University research team found that “AV technology has the potential to transform transportation systems and land use patterns to a level not seen since the mass production of the private automobile roughly a century ago.”

There is also growing recognition that the potential secondary impacts of the technology on communities and the built environment will be significant — in a positive or negative direction, or both. Sounding a note of warning, Erik Guerra of the University of Pennsylvania asserted in a 2015 Journal of Planning Education and Research article that “the planning profession has a somewhat poor track record of preparing for new transportation technologies.”

Two predominant scenarios about a future AV world have emerged in the last several years. In the “utopian” scenario, the AV fleet consists of shared electric vehicles, leading to fewer cars, reduced congestion and carbon emissions, improved air quality, and compact development patterns in which walking, biking, and transit thrive.

In the “dystopian” scenario, the AV fleet consists of private vehicles and “zero-occupancy” cars roam the streets, resulting in greatly increased traffic, severe reductions in other transportation modes, increased air pollution, and more sprawl as people choose to live in the hinterlands and have their cars drive them to work.

It is perhaps most likely that the future will be somewhere between the two extremes, and planners and allied professionals will play a key role in helping communities maximize positive and minimize negative outcomes from AV technology. Cognizant of the failure of the planning profession in the 20th century to anticipate the secondary impacts of private automobiles, the American Planning Association (APA) has prioritized planning for the coming wave of autonomous vehicles as a strategic research and policy initiative.

With support from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and other sponsors, APA, the National League of Cities (NLC), and partner organizations convened a symposium on the policy implications of autonomous vehicles for cities and regions at NLC headquarters in October 2017.

Released by APA in February 2018, the report on the symposium, titled "Preparing Communities for Autonomous Vehicles," provides guidance on how local and regional government agencies can start planning for AVs, from community visioning and goal setting to policy and implementation through development regulations, site design, and public investment. Other resources and policy guidance developed by APA include:

  • a Research Knowledgebase collection of reports, policy guides, briefing papers, articles, and other resources addressing AVs;
  • Policy Principles for Autonomous Vehicles
  • a Planning and Advisory Services (PAS) Report on Planning for Autonomous Vehicles (forthcoming)
  • a new podcast series titled "Planning the Autonomous Future"

While much is unknown about how the secondary impacts of AVs — combined with related trends such as e-commerce and shared mobility — will play out over time, one thing is certain: the time to begin planning is now.

Pilot applications of the technology are rolling out in cities across the country and planning processes underway today have 20 to 30-year time horizons, within which use of AVs is projected to be widespread. The challenge for planners is to adapt existing and develop new approaches and tools that enable communities to sustain their values and achieve their goals in an era of rapid technological change.

Top image: Kenneth Petty, director of the FHWA Office of Planning, addresses symposium attendees in October 2017.

About the Author
David Rouse, FAICP, is APA's director of research.

February 26, 2018

By David Rouse, FAICP